KABUL, Afghanistan – NATO (search) troops scouring the wreckage of an Afghan airliner atop a snowy mountain peak on Monday found human remains amid the debris but no sign that any of the 104 people on board survived the crash, a spokesman said.
Relatives swarmed toward the freezing mountain to try to retrieve the bodies, but they were turned back by Afghan security forces struggling to mount a recovery operation.
Clear skies allowed a Spanish Cougar helicopter to drop five Slovenian mountain troops onto the mountain top 20 miles east of Kabul, on Monday morning, where they struggled through the deep snow among several pieces of torn fuselage.
"They did find human remains," NATO spokeswoman Maj. Karen Tissot Van Patot said. It was impossible to say how many bodies the remains belonged to, she said. The troops were lifted out again as visibility deteriorated.
Officials expect all those aboard — most of them Afghans, but also including more than 20 foreigners — perished in what would be Afghanistan's worst aviation disaster. Six Americans were believed to be on board.
The Boeing 737-200 (search), 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 clouds and up to eight feet of snow had prevented alliance and Afghan forces from reaching the site.
By late Monday, 100 Afghan soldiers had gotten to within 150 yards of the crash site, Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammed Zaher Azimi said. He said they would camp there overnight and that medical teams would hopefully arrive Tuesday to begin collecting the bodies.
The Afghan troops had been searching for a land route to the area because any other route, such as helicopter, had earlier been thought to risky.
At the town of But Khak, German and French soldiers ran mine-detecting equipment over a makeshift landing pad that Afghan officials said would be used as a staging post, although the Afghan Defense Ministry said no bodies would be brought down before Tuesday.
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.
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 (search) 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.