* Plane left from U.S. transit centre in Kyrgyzstan -
* Base used to transport troops in and out of Afghanistan
* Rescuers on horseback searching mountains for crew
* Civil aviation official says storm clouds could be cause
(Adds confirmation of crash from U.S. centre, video footage,
quote from ministry official)
By Olga Dzyubenko
BISHKEK, May 3 A U.S. military refuelling plane
on its way to Afghanistan exploded in mid air and crashed in
Kyrgyzstan on Friday when its cargo of fuel ignited, the Central
Asian country's Emergencies Ministry said.
The aircraft took off from the U.S. military transit centre
at Kyrgyzstan's international Manas airport, which U.S. forces
maintain for operations in Afghanistan, with around 70 tonnes of
fuel on board, a local ministry official said.
The plane, used for inflight refuelling, disappeared from
radar screens at 3:10 p.m. as it flew near the Kyrgyz village of
Chaldovar, the ministry said. The three person crew was
unaccounted for, it said.
The ministry said witnesses saw the plane explode in the
air, and a local government official said debris was scattered
over a 4 to 5 km area in a nearby mountainous area.
"The chassis, the fuselage have all been extinguished and
now we are searching for the crew members and the plane's black
box," ministry official Bolot Sharshenaliyev said.
"There are three crew members. According to preliminary
information it flew from Bishkek and was on its way to
Afghanistan, with approximately 70 tonnes of fuel on board."
Cellphone video footage obtained by Reuters showed an armed
guard around the crash site where burning debris had scorched
Rescue workers on horseback were scouring the area before
night fell in the rural area on the border with Kazakhstan,
regional governmental official Kanat Davletov told Reuters.
The U.S. transit centre confirmed the crash of the Boeing
KC-135 Stratotanker and said it was under investigation. The
centre did not give a cause for the crash nor confirm the number
of crew members on board.
A Kyrgyz civil aviation official, speaking on condition of
anonymity, said storm clouds over the region could have caused
the explosion, Interfax reported.
Manas, established as a military base in December 2001, is
used to transport U.S. personnel in and out of Afghanistan and
has been used by other international forces in the country.
U.S. forces lease the facility for $60 million a year.
The contract for the transit centre, near the Kyrgyz capital
of Bishkek, will expire in July of next year, as Washington
draws down its forces from Afghanistan.
(Reporting Olga Dzyubenko; Writing by Thomas Grove; Editing by