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Plane catches fire on landing in Iran, killing 29

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) _ An Iranian jetliner skidded off the runway and smashed its wing as it landed Friday in the northeastern city of Mashhad, sparking a fire that killed 29 of the 148 people aboard, Iran's aviation chief said.

State-run television had earlier reported up to 80 dead aboard the Russian-made Tupelov 154.

The plane slid off the runway, ``then its left wing hit the ground and caught fire,'' Nourollah Rezai Niaraki, chairman of Iran's Civil Aviation Organization, said in a TV interview.

Niaraki said it was not immediately known why the plane skidded off the runway. Earlier, the television said a tire on the aircraft exploded while landing, but that could not be confirmed.

Rescue workers carried survivors on stretchers from the gutted aircraft, which lay in a pool of water near the runway. In video shown on the Iranian television, the middle section of the plane was charred and the top of the fuselage had collapsed, while firefighters sprayed the engines with water.

The flight _ by Iran Airtour, which is affiliated to Iran's national air carrier _ originated in Bandar Abbas, in southern Iran. The television said none of the flight's crew were among the dead.

Mashhad, located 620 miles northeast of Tehran, is visited by some 12 million people annually on pilgrimage to its Shiite Islamic shrines. It was not clear, however, if the passengers in Friday's flight included pilgrims.

Iran has frequent plane accidents and has several times blamed them on U.S. sanctions that it says make it difficult to import spare parts, even from Europe. However, it does not have similar difficulty buying parts for its Russian planes, some of whose recent crashes have been blamed on poor maintenance and other problems.

The West offered to open the door to sales of new planes and spare parts in an incentive package aimed at getting it to roll back its nuclear program.

The Tu-154, the workhorse of passenger airlines in the former Soviet Union, has been in commercial service since 1972. More than 900 have been built and more than 160 exported to airlines around the world. Due to noise and pollution regulations, the planes do not fly to Western destinations.

Another Tu-154 crashed Aug. 22 during a thunderstorm in Ukraine. The jet, owned by Russia's Pulkovo Airlines, was en route from a Black Sea resort to St. Petersburg, killing all 170 people on board.

In 2002, a Tu-154 crashed in the mountains of western Iran, killing all 119 people on board.

Iran Air has seven Russian-made Tupolevs in its 43-plane fleet. It also has seven Boeings that were bought before the 1979 Islamic revolution, as well as 28 European Airbus and Fokker planes.

In March, Iran Air expressed interest in purchasing U.S. aircraft, although it wasn't clear how it would circumvent U.S. sanctions in place since 1979 when diplomatic relations were cut after militants stormed the U.S. Embassy and held hostages for more than a year.
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