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Belarus says plane shot down in Somalia

MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Belarus said on Saturday a missile caused a plane crash in Mogadishu that killed 11 of its citizens, while the Somali government said the incident looked more like an accident than an attack by ever bolder insurgents.

“The plane was shot down,” Transport Ministry spokeswoman Kseniya Perestoronina said in Minsk, adding the large Ilyushin plane, in Somalia to assist struggling African peacekeepers, was hit at a height of 150 metres (500 feet).

If confirmed, it would be the most spectacular strike yet by rebels fighting the Somali government, their Ethiopian military allies and the African Union (AU) force since the start of 2007.

Both a local Somali radio and an Islamist Web site said a missile hit the Russian-made Ilyushin -- used by a Belarussian firm -- just after takeoff from Mogadishu on Friday afternoon.

However, witnesses who saw the plane burning in the sky and then crashing could not confirm it had been shot first.

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And Somali Interior Minister Mohamed Mahamud Guled insisted the incident had the hallmarks of a technical fault, though investigations were under way to confirm exactly what happened.

“The plane took off at around five o’clock and as soon as it reached 10,000 feet altitude, the pilot reported an engine problem in engine number two and said he would turn back to the airport,” he told a news conference in Mogadishu.

Only one of the 11 on board, who were seven crew members and four engineers, initially survived the crash. He was found wandering among corpses and wreckage, but then died in hospital.

At the crash site -- a farmers’ hamlet just north of Mogadishu -- a Reuters reporter there on Saturday could see crushed animals, four corpses still on the ground, and wreckage strewn across an area the size of four football fields.

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“I was so scared. The smoke and the fire coming from the sky was overwhelming. Everyone though it was going to explode again after it crashed and so they fled the area,” said Mahmud Farah, a local born in the area. “I am 50 years old and this is the first time I’ve ever been near a plane.”

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The plane had brought a team to fix another Ilyushin lying damaged at Mogadishu airport after flying in peacekeepers. That plane caught fire on the runway in an incident the AU said was a technical fault, but Islamists said was a missile attack.

Friday’s crash came after three days of the worst violence since a war over the New Year that ousted militant Islamists in charge of south Somalia for the previous six months.

Insurgents believed to be a mixture of Islamists and disgruntled clan militia have been striking daily against the government, Ethiopian soldiers, and contingent of 1,200 Ugandan soldiers in the vanguard of the African force.

At least 20 people have died and hundreds more have been wounded in the fighting since Wednesday.

Thousands have fled Mogadishu.

Residents say the latest violence coincides with a government-led disarmament drive resisted by Mogadishu’s dominant Hawiye clan, many of whom regard it as an attempt by the president, from the rival Darod clan, to marginalise them.

President Abdullahi Yusuf’s interim government -- the 14th attempt to establish central rule to Somalia since 1991 -- says it wants to secure the gun-infested city before a reconciliation conference scheduled for April 16.

Additional reporting by Andrei Makhovsky in Minsk