BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – Search teams on Saturday found the bodies of two American crew members near where their military refueling plane crashed in the rugged mountains of Kyrgyzstan, the emergencies minister of the Central Asian nation said.
The KC-135 plane crashed Friday afternoon about 100 miles west of the air base that the U.S. operates in Kyrgyzstan to support military operations in Afghanistan. Officials at the U.S. Transit Center at the Manas base have released no information yet on the cause of the crash and could not immediately be reached on Saturday for any further information.
On Friday, a congressional source told Reuters News Service the plane was from McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas and the three-member crew was based at Fairchild Air Force Base west of Spokane. A Fairchild spokesman did not return calls Saturday, but KHQ-TV reported that Col. Brian Newberry, commander of Fairchild’s 92nd Air Refueling Wing, said identities of the crew members were expected to be released today.
Emergencies Minister Kubatbek Boronov told the Associated Press that Kyrgyz search teams found the two bodies Saturday morning and they have not yet been identified.
Boronov said the Kyrgyz rescuers were working with U.S. military personnel from Manas to search for the third crewman and the flight recorders. Later Saturday, the television network Russia-24 reported that recovery teams had found the body of the third crew member, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Dozens of U.S. military personnel scoured the area on Saturday and set up a security cordon around the crash site.
Parts of the plane were scattered across a wide area near the village of Chaldovar. Some pieces, including the tail, came down in a grassy valley bordered by steep mountains, but others landed in spots much more difficult for search teams to reach.
Residents of the rural, sheep-herding region described hearing the plane explode in the air and seeing it break apart as it fell.
“I heard a very loud explosion,” Emil Bokochev, a member of the village council, told an AP reporter at the site. “Literally six or seven seconds afterward there was another explosion and the plane broke apart into four or five pieces and at that moment we thought it was going to fall on the village Chaldovar.”
The plane was on a refueling mission for Afghanistan war operations at the time of the crash, a U.S. defense official in Washington said, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss the details of an ongoing investigation.
The U.S. base, which is adjacent to Manas International Airport outside Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, was established in late 2001 to support the international military campaign in Afghanistan. It functions as an interim point for troops going into or out of Afghanistan and as a home for the tanker planes that refuel warplanes in flight.
The Manas base has been the subject of a contentious dispute between the United States and its host nation.
In 2009, the U.S. reached an agreement with the Kyrgyz government to use it in return for $60 million a year. But the lease runs out in June 2014, and the U.S. wants to keep the base longer to aid in the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan is reluctant to extend the lease.