KABUL, Afghanistan – NATO troops reached the wreckage of an Afghan airliner on Monday, four days after it crashed into a snowy mountain peak with 104 people on board, and began the gruesome task of sifting through the remains, a spokesman said.
Officials held out little hope of finding any survivors among the people aboard — including more than 20 foreigners — in what was likely to become Afghanistan's worst aviation disaster. Six Americans were believed to be on board.
Clear skies allowed helicopters to drop a small team of medics and mountaineers near the site, 20 miles east of Kabul (search), on Monday morning, a NATO (search) spokesman said. There was no immediate word on what they saw.
"The weather is much better today, which allowed them to get to the top," Maj. Joseph Bowman said. "They're looking for survivors and trying to make the site secure" for more forces to join the operation, he said.
The Boeing 737-200, flown by Kam Air (search), Afghanistan's first post-Taliban private airline, vanished from radar screens Thursday afternoon as it approached Kabul airport in a snowstorm from the western city of Herat. There were 96 passengers and eight crew aboard.
NATO helicopters spotted parts of the wreckage some 11,000 feet up Chaperi Mountain on Saturday, but freezing fog, low cloud and up to eight feet of snow had prevented alliance and Afghan forces from reaching the site.
At Kabul airport, Slovenian mountain troops from Afghanistan's NATO-led peacekeeping force loaded supplies into helicopters heading to the crash site. Coffins were readied and space reserved in the morgue at the city's military hospital.
Afghan soldiers set up a checkpoint on the nearby road to stop relatives and media from traveling to the foot of the mountain and getting in the way of the recovery operation.
They decided against halting one truck, full of relatives furious at the slow pace of the rescue, who insisted on mounting their own search for their loved-ones, but persuaded others that it was futile.
Awaz, an Afghan traveling with 14 other family members in two sports-utility vehicles, said he wanted to bring back the body of his 22-year-old brother, Baz Mohammed, before it was harmed by the extreme cold and scavenging birds.
"I will know his face, or his shalwar kameez (baggy pants and shirt) or I will find his ID card in his pocket," Awaz, who like many Afghans goes by one name, said before he was turned back.
On Saturday, the alliance released a photo of the plane's white tail fin jutting from the snow on a bleak ridge. No other wreckage or bodies could be seen, though NATO soldiers near the scene said larger sections littered the other side of the mountain.
Afghan officials say air traffic controllers lost contact with the plane just after it was given permission to land. But the airline believes it turned away from Kabul toward Pakistan in search of an alternative air strip before it hit the mountain.
The U.S. military sought Monday to quash speculation that the plane had been refused permission to land at the U.S. base at Bagram, north of the capital.
"It was never the intent, they were never denied," Maj. Clay Berardi, a U.S. Marine Corps pilot, said at a news conference. "Up unto the point that this aircraft impacted to ground, they were on a normal approach."
The Afghan government says U.S. experts will help it investigate the crash, along with representatives of the other foreign victims.
Nine Turks, six Americans and three Italians were believed to have taken the flight, though a final list has yet to be released. Airline officials say the crew was made of up of six Russians and two Afghans, although Moscow said only four Russian citizens were missing.
Afghanistan's most recent commercial crash was on March 19, 1998, when an Ariana Airlines Boeing 727 slammed into a peak south of Kabul, killing all 45 passengers and crew. The U.S. military has suffered a string of deadly air accidents in Afghanistan, most involving helicopters.