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Iran says air industry suffering from U.S. sanctions
Thursday, February 20, 2003 Posted: 7:54 AM EST (1254 GMT)

Rescue workers scoured snow-capped peaks for the remains of 302 of Iran's troops.

• Previous Iran air crashes
• Interactive: Timeline of recent crashes

ZAHEDAN, Iran (CNN) -- Heavy fog has forced rescue workers to call off for the night the search for wreckage of a military plane that crashed in southeastern Iran, killing all 302 on board.

The 284 members of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard and 18 crew members on the plane were confirmed dead -- making the crash Iran's worst ever and one of the highest death tolls in aviation history.

Officials said the poor weather conditions made it dangerous for the workers to continue searching the rocky terrain where the Russian-made Ilyushin aircraft went down Wednesday evening.

The crash was the latest in a string of plane accidents the Iranian government has blamed on U.S. sanctions, arguing that they have prevented the country from repairing and replacing its aging fleet. Trade between Iran and the United States has been frozen under sanctions Washington imposed after the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

In December, Transportation Minister Ahmad Khorram acknowledged that Iran's air industry was suffering from U.S. sanctions on purchase of American-made planes and warned of air disasters if the trade ban was not lifted.

The minister, speaking days after the December 23 crash of a Ukrainian AN-140 plane that killed 46 scientists, said several of Iran's aging Boeing and Airbus planes had been grounded because of technical problems and lack of spare parts. He said Iran's fleet had "reached a crisis point."

Ali Moradi Haqiqi, police chief of the Sistan-Baluchestan province where said the aircraft which crashed on Wednesday went down in bad weather, just before the plane was due to land at the Kerman airport. (Flight path)

An Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane
Officials said the pilot had complained of strong winds. His last words to controllers was: "I am trying to approach the airport; maybe the weather conditions will get better." Then all contact was lost.

Formed shortly after the 1979 Islamic revolution inspired by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Revolutionary Guards force is independent of Iran's regular army and played a key role in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.

Today it numbers about 120,000 personnel and answers directly to Khomeini's successor, current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Officials refused to comment on why so many military personnel were travelling together. Khamenei was reportedly scheduled to head to the region Friday, and the Guard was believed to have been heading there to prepare for his visit, Iranian officials told CNN.

The Supreme Leader sent his condolences to the families of the victims, calling the soldiers "my children."

Religious holiday
The death toll exceeded that of Iran's previous worst air disaster in 1988, when an Iran Air A-300 Airbus was shot down over the Gulf by the U.S. warship Vincennes which wrongly identified it as an attacking fighter. All 290 people on board were killed in that incident.

The crash came as Iran prepared to celebrate a religious holiday on Thursday to mark the day when Shi'ite Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammad appointed his son-in-law, Ali, as his spiritual heir.

Three days of mourning were declared in Kerman, starting on Monday.

Mahmoud Ahmadi, an Iranian journalist, told CNN the Iranian Cabinet has issued a message of condolence to the families of those killed in the crash, which was the latest in a series of aviation disasters in Iran, most of which involved Russian-designed aircraft. (Previous Iran crashes)

Since 1979 and the imposition of U.S. sanctions, Iran has been forced to supplement its fleet of Boeing and European-made Airbus airliners with planes bought or leased from the former Soviet Union and analysts say there are difficulties obtaining factory-approved spare parts.

Iran is not allowed to buy European-made Airbuses because about 40 percent of their parts are U.S. made.

-- Thomas Loudon, a reporter with Dutch Radio Television in Tehran, contributed to this report
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