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All 65 aboard plane feared dead in crash in southern Iran

NASSER KARIMI and JON GAMBRELL
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ATR-72

A French-made ATR-72 owned by Iran's Aseman Airlines. (Marwan Naaani/AFP)

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — An Iranian airplane brought back into service only months ago after being grounded for seven years crashed Sunday in a foggy, mountainous region of southern Iran, and officials feared all 65 people on board were killed.

The crash of the Aseman Airlines ATR-72 was yet another fatal aviation disaster for Iran, which for years was barred from buying necessary airplane parts due to Western sanctions over its contested nuclear program.

Its nuclear accord with world powers allows it to get those parts and the country has made deals worth tens of billions of dollars for new aircraft. However, President Donald Trump's refusal to recertify the deal has injected uncertainty into those sales while Iranians still fly in aging aircraft.

The ATR-72, a twin-engine turboprop used for short-distance regional flying, went down near its destination of the southern city of Yasuj, some 780 kilometers (485 miles) south of the capital, Tehran, where it took off.

It wasn't immediately clear what caused the crash, although weather was severe. Dense fog, high winds and heavy snow in the Zagros Mountains made it impossible for rescue crews in helicopters to reach the site, state television reported.

Aseman Airlines spokesman Mohammad Taghi Tabatabai told state TV that all on board Flight EP3704 were killed. It had 59 passengers and six crew members, the state-run IRNA news agency reported Sunday night, lowering the toll to 65 from an initially reported 66.

"After searching the area, we learned that unfortunately ... our dear passengers had lost their lives," Tabatabai said.

Both Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani offered their condolences.

Tabatabai said the plane crashed into Mount Dena, which is about 4,400 meters (14,435 feet) tall. The plane's last signal, at 0555 GMT (12:35 a.m. EST), showed it at 16,975 feet and descending, according to airplane-tracking website FlightRadar24. The pilot was in contact with the tower 14 miles from the airport, state TV said.

One previous passenger on the route posted a video Sunday showing that the flight typically comes in just over the mountain peaks. Aeronautical charts for the airport warn pilots to keep an altitude of 15,000 feet in the area. The airport itself is at nearly 6,000 feet.

The Iranian Red Crescent said it has deployed to the area. Locals described hearing the crash, but no one has reached the crash site due to weather.

Aseman Airlines, owned by Iran's civil service pension foundation, is a semi-private air carrier headquartered in Tehran and is Iran's third-largest airline by fleet size, behind state carrier Iran Air and Mahan Air. It specializes in flights to remote airfields across the country but also flies internationally, although it is banned in the European Union over safety concerns.

The carrier has a fleet of 29 aircraft, including six ATR aircraft, according to FlightRadar24. The ATR-72 that crashed Sunday, with the tail number EP-ATS, had been built in 1993, Aseman Airlines CEO Ali Abedzadeh told state TV.

On Instagram, Aseman Airlines highlighted the doomed aircraft in October, saying it had been "grounded" for seven years but would be "repaired and will be operational after checking and testing." It wasn't clear what led to the grounding, though Iran only recently regained access to the airplane parts market after the nuclear deal.

European airplane manufacturer ATR, a Toulouse, France-based partnership of Airbus and Italy's Leonardo SpA., said it had no immediate information about the crash.

Aseman Airlines has had other major crashes. In October 1994, a twin-propeller Fokker F-28 1000 commuter plane operated by the airline crashed near Natanz, 290 kilometers (180 miles) south of Tehran, killing 66 people. An Aseman Airlines-chartered flight in August 2008, flown by an Itek Air Boeing 737, crashed in Kyrgyzstan, killing 74 people.

Under decades of international sanctions, Iran's commercial passenger aircraft fleet has aged, with air accidents occurring regularly in recent years.

Following the 2015 landmark nuclear deal with world powers, Iran signed deals with both Airbus and Boeing to buy scores of passenger planes worth tens of billions of dollars.

In April 2017, ATR sealed a $536 million sale with Iran Air for at least 20 aircraft. Chicago-based Boeing also signed a $3 billion deal that month to sell 30 737 MAX aircraft to Aseman Airlines.

Home to 80 million people, Iran is one of the world's last untapped aviation markets. However, Western analysts are skeptical there is demand for so many jets or available financing for deals worth billions of dollars.

Iran has suffered a series of major aviation disasters in recent decades. Its last major crash happened in January 2011, when an Iran Air Boeing 727 broke to pieces on impact while trying an emergency landing in a snowstorm in northwestern Iran, killing at least 77 people.

In July 2009, a Russian-made jetliner crashed shortly after taking off from Tehran, killing all 168 on board. A Russian-made Ilyushin 76 carrying members of the Revolutionary Guard crashed in southeastern Iran in February 2003, killing 302 people.

In February 1993, an Iranian airliner with 132 people aboard collided with an air force jet after takeoff from Tehran's main airport, killing everyone on the two aircraft. And in July 1988, the USS Vincennes in the Strait of Hormuz mistook an Iran Air flight heading to Dubai for an attacking fighter jet, shooting down the plane and killing all 290 people aboard.

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Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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This story has been corrected to say the height of Mount Dena is about 4,400 meters (14,435 feet).

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