Bodies of two US pilots found after Kyrgyzstan crash

Rescuers on Saturday recovered the bodies of two US pilots whose refuelling plane crashed in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan shortly after taking off from a base that serves as a hub for military operations in Afghanistan, the emergency situations ministry said.

The KC-135 Stratotanker with a crew of three -- believed to be carrying dozens of tonnes of fuel -- crashed and burst into flames in a gorge around 98 kilometres (61 miles) from Bishkek on Friday, US and Kyrgyz officials said.

"The bodies of two pilots were found this morning at 7 am (0100 GMT) near the site of the crash. The search operation is continuing, the body of the third crew member has not yet been found," a spokesman for the Kyrgyzstan emergency situations ministry told AFP.

The remains of the pilots, who have yet to be named, have been transported back to the aircraft's US base, the Manas transit centre, located near the Kyrgyzstan capital, officials said.

The US side was working to identify the remains, while around 50 rescuers were searching for the third crew member, emergency situations minister Kubatbek Boronov told journalists.

The US base was carrying out its own investigation into the cause of the accident, Kyrgyz officials said.

"Staff from the Manas transit centre are at the scene. They will also work on investigating the reasons for the air crash," Boronov said.

The plane "exploded at a height of 6,600 metres," the Kyrgyz transport and communications minister Kalykbek Sultanov told journalists Saturday, as he took charge of a government commission investigating the accident.

Rescuers were still looking for the plane's black box, Boronov said Saturday after initially announcing that it had been located on Friday.

Kyrgyz investigators will make public a preliminary version in three to four days, Sultanov said, as local media reports focused on stormy weather conditions when the plane took off for Afghanistan.

The rescue operation resumed early on Saturday after being called off during the night, as little hope remained of finding the crew alive.

Initial witness accounts that pilots could have parachuted out of the plane were apparently contradicted by the discovery of the two pilots' remains close to the plane.

The base at Manas, which hosts about 1,500 US troops and contractors, is key to the US campaign in Afghanistan, used to ferry troops into the country, refuel warplanes and evacuate wounded soldiers.

The airbase opened in 2001 and the current lease on the base expires in 2014, an arrangement that has been a cause of friction between Washington and the ex-Soviet Central Asian state.

Kyrgyzstan's President Almazbek Atambayev has vowed that the country will fulfil its obligations on the lease but wants Manas to serve only as a civilian passenger hub from 2014.

The incident comes less than a week after a civilian cargo plane crashed shortly after take-off at the US-run Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, killing all seven crew members on board.

tol-am/mfp