Search for Afghan Jetliner Suspended

NATO (search) and Afghan forces suspended their ground and air search as darkness closed in Friday for an Afghan passenger jet carrying 104 people after it disappeared from radar screens during a snowstorm near the mountain-ringed capital.

NATO and Afghan Officials denied statements from Turkish officials that parts of the wreckage had been located 20 miles southeast of Kabul (search), and they said the search would resume Saturday.

The Kam Air Boeing 737-200 took off Thursday from the western Afghan city of Herat bound for Kabul, but was unable to land because of bad weather. The airline initially said the plane was diverted to neighboring Pakistan, but officials there said it never entered their airspace.

Kam Air said there were 96 passengers and a crew of eight — six Russians and two Afghans — on the scheduled flight, but the exact number of foreigners was unclear.

A Massachusetts-based aid group said three of its American staff were missing, Turkey said nine of its citizens were on the plane, and Italy said one passenger was Italian.

Kamgar said the eight-member flight crew included six Russians and two Afghans.

Afghanistan's NATO peacekeeping force sent helicopters and ground teams to scour an area of high mountains southeast of the city, where officials said the plane was last reported on Thursday afternoon, but returned to base empty-handed.

Maj. Karen Tissot Van Patot said freezing fog had forced down even the Apache helicopters, which are equipped for night flying. An Associated Press reporter also saw Afghan troops heading back toward Kabul.

"Things will shut down for the night and resume in the morning," Patot said, discounting media reports that a piece of the wreckage had been found. "We'd have heard fairly quickly if anything had turned up."

Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammed Zahir Azimi said Afghan troops had also given up for the night. "They could not find a single piece of the plane," he said. "Tomorrow we will search a wider area."

A Turkish Foreign Ministry official in Ankara had said Turkish military officers in Kabul confirmed wreckage had been found southeast of Kabul. The Turkish air force is in charge of Kabul airport as part of the NATO peacekeeping mission. The Turkish official, who spoke on customary condition of anonymity, also said the Afghan Transportation Ministry has confirmed the crash.

But Haroun Rassoul, secretary to the Afghan transport minister, said late Friday there was no confirmation that the plane had crashed. "We have no precise information about it and the investigation is continuing," he said.

Kabul is surrounded by snowcapped mountains, raising the hazards for planes flying in bad weather. The area near the border is so remote that officials suspect militants, including Usama bin Laden, have hidden there since the fall of Afghanistan's former Taliban government in 2001.

The clouds lifted for several hours on Friday afternoon, presenting a chance to find and reach any survivors if the plane had crashed.

Hundreds of Afghan troops were sent to Khaki Jabar, a district southeast of Kabul with few roads and steep ridges rising to more than 13,000 feet. An AP photographer saw two helicopters flying over the area and a column of German armored vehicles moving along a mountain road.

The private airline's mainly domestic flights are popular with Afghans wealthy enough to avoid long journeys over bumpy roads and are also used by aid and reconstruction workers.

Three American women working for Management Sciences for Health, a nonprofit group based in Cambridge, Mass., were believed to be aboard, said William Schiffbauer, a company representative in Kabul.

Turkey's Prime Ministry said Friday that nine Turks were aboard, and six of them were from a Turkish road contractor called Gulsan-Cukurova, which is working on a U.S.-funded road project in the west, company manager Kurtulus Ergin said.

In Rome, the Italian Defense Ministry said one of the passengers was Capt. Bruno Vianini, who was assigned to a military-sponsored reconstruction project.

Transport Minister Enayatullah Qasemi said the pilot last contacted the Kabul control tower at about 3 p.m. Thursday to ask for a weather update and was cleared for landing by Bagram Air Base, the U.S. military base north of Kabul with overall responsibility for Afghan airspace.

Moments later it disappeared from radar screens, a few miles east of the city.

The last major plane crash in Afghanistan was on Nov. 27, when a transport plane under contract to the U.S. military crashed in central Bamiyan province, killing three American soldiers and three American civilian crew.

The most recent commercial crash was on March 19, 1998, when an Ariana Airlines Boeing 727 slammed into a mountain close to the area being searched Friday, killing all 45 passengers and crew.

Kam Air was the first private airline established in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and made its maiden flight on the Kabul-Herat route in November 2003. The airline operates a fleet of leased Boeing and Antonov aircraft on domestic Afghan routes as well as to Dubai.