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Iran hunt for missing passenger plane suspended; 66 feared dead in crash

Aseman Airlines flight en route from Mehrabad to Yasuj crashed in mountainous region of central Iran
An Aseman Airlines ATR-72 at Dubai airport (AFP)

The hunt for an ATR 72 passenger plane that disappeared with 66 people onboard in Iran's Zagros mountains was stopped until morning as blizzard conditions made progress impossible for rescue teams, state television said late Sunday. 

"With the wind intensifying, and with snow, rain and darkness, it is not possible for rescue and relief teams to reach high altitudes and the search operation has been postponed until tomorrow," broadcaster IRIB announced.

"Five helicopters are on alert to resume the search at dawn if the weather conditions are better."

All 66 passengers and crew of the plane are feared dead after it crashed in the mountainous region of central Iran on Sunday, officials said.

The Aseman Airlines plane crashed near the town of Semirom, in the Zagros Mountain, news agency ISNA quoted emergency services spokesman Mojtaba Khaledi as saying.

"After searches in the area, unfortunately we were informed that the plane crashed. Unfortunately, all our dear ones lost their lives in this incident," said Mohammad Tabatabai, director of public relations for the airline.

But he later retracted his statement, telling the ISNA news agency: "We still have no access to the spot of the crash and therefore we cannot accurately and definitely confirm the death of all passengers."

The plane, which took off around 0800 (0430 GMT) was carrying 60 passengers, including one child, as well as six crew, he added.

The twin-engine turboprop ATR-72 destined for the city of Yasuj disappeared from radar screens 50 minutes after taking off from Tehran’s Mehrabad airport, state-run Press TV said.

Semirom's governor said rescue helicopters were unable to land in the crash site because of heavy fog and emergency workers were trying to reach the area by land, the semi-official Mehr news agency reported.

"Given the fact that the area is mountainous, it is not possible to send ambulances," said emergency service spokesman Khaledi. 

The Relief and Rescue Organisation of Iran's Red Crescent said it had dispatched 12 teams to the region. 

Ageing Iranian airline fleet 

Decades of international sanctions have left Iran with an aging fleet of passenger planes which it has struggled to maintain and modernise. 

It has suffered multiple aviation disasters, most recently in 2014 when a Sepahan plane crashed killing 39 people. 

Aseman finalised plans to modernise its fleet by buying 30 Boeing 737 MAX jets last June, after sanctions were lifted on aviation purchases following the 2015 Iran nuclear deal with the US and other powers.

However, the sale could be scuppered if US President Donald Trump chooses to reimpose sanctions in the coming months, as he has threatened to do. 

The US has maintained its own sanctions on Iran, which block almost all trade with the country, but plane manufacturers were given a specific exemption under the nuclear deal.  

Boeing, which is also building 80 planes for national carrier Iran Air, faces heavy criticism from US lawmakers who say Iranian airlines have been used to ship weapons and troops to Syria and other conflict zones. 

The US Treasury Department approved the sale of the 80 Boeing jets as well as 100 Airbus planes to Iran Air. The first few Airbus jets have already arrived in Tehran.

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