Bodies of two US pilots found after Kyrgyzstan crash

Rescuers on Saturday said they had 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 KC-135 Stratotanker with a crew of three -- believed to be carrying dozens of tonnes of fuel -- exploded and broke up midair before crashing around 98 kilometres (61 miles) from Bishkek on Friday.

"The bodies of two pilots were found this morning at 7am (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 Kyrgyz rescue operation told AFP from the scene.

The charred fragments of bodies were found close to the nose of the plane, a few kilometres from the main crash site, an emergency situations ministry spokeswoman, Anara Mambetaliyeva, 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, close to the Kyrgyz capital, officials said.

The US side was working to identify the remains, while around 50 rescuers continued to search for the third crew member and the plane's black box, Emergency Situations Minister Kubatbek Boronov told journalists.

Kyrgyz ministers said they had launched a government investigation into the crash.

"The government commission has created a working group of specialists who will investigate the reasons for the crash," Kyrgyz Transport and Communications Minister Kalykbek Sultanov, who heads the commission, told journalists.

"If necessary, we will call on specialists from the US Air Force and the transit centre at Manas," he added.

Kyrgyz investigators will make public their preliminary findings in three to four days, Sultanov said.

US officials were also scouring the scene and gathering the scattered pieces of the plane.

"The whole area has been sealed off by the Americans. They are working with the plane wreckage and collecting it up," a district official, Kanat Davletov, told local radio.

An emergency situations ministry official told AFP on Saturday that at this stage a technical fault was seen as the likeliest explanation.

Some local media reports focused on stormy weather conditions when the plane took off for Afghanistan.

The plane was trying to avoid a storm front, the former Kyrgyz civil aviation chief, Alexander Nastayev, told local media, citing air traffic controllers.

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.