TEHERAN • All 65 people on board an Iranian passenger plane were feared dead yesterday after it crashed into the country's Zagros mountains, with emergency services struggling to locate the wreckage in blizzard conditions.
The Aseman Airlines flight left Teheran's Mehrabad airport in the morning for the city of Yasuj, about 500km to the south, said the airline's public relations chief Mohammad Tabatabai.
The plane - a twin-engine turboprop ATR-72 - crashed into Dena mountain, part of the Zagros range, around 23km from Yasuj. It was carrying 59 passengers, including one child, as well as six crew, when it disappeared from radar around 45 minutes after take-off.
"After searches in the area, unfortunately we were informed that the plane crashed," Mr Tabatabai told state broadcaster Irib. "Unfortunately, all our dear ones lost their lives in this incident."
He later retracted his statement, telling the Isna news agency: "We still have no access to the spot of the crash and therefore we cannot accurately and definitely confirm the death of all passengers."
There were conflicting reports on the location of the crash site as emergency teams battled se-vere weather.
"The rescue and relief teams were sent to the possible area of the crash... but the helicopter could not continue its path due to snow and blizzard," Mr Jalal Pooranfar, regional head for Iran's emergency services, told Isna.
He said teams were being sent by land, adding: "Right now, there are five rescue and relief teams of the emergency service in the area. But they still have not spotted anything."
The Relief and Rescue Organisation of Iran's Red Crescent said it had also sent 12 teams to the region.
President Hassan Rouhani ordered the Transport Ministry to set up a crisis group to investigate the crash and coordinate rescue efforts.
Aseman currently has a fleet of 36 planes, including at least three ATR-72s that date back to the early 1990s. A spokesman for ATR, a subsidiary of Europe's Airbus, told Agence France-Presse that the company was "researching the details" of yesterday's crash.
Decades of international sanctions have left Iran with an ageing fleet of passenger planes which it has struggled to maintain and modernise. It has suffered multiple aviation disasters, most recently in 2014 when a Sepahan Airlines plane crashed, killing 39 people.
Lifting sanctions on aviation purchases was a key clause in the nuclear deal Iran signed with world powers in 2015. Following the deal, Aseman Airlines finalised an agreement to buy 30 Boeing 737 MAX jets for US$3 billion (S$3.9 billion) last June, with an option to buy 30 more.
However, the sale could be scuppered if US President Donald Trump chooses to reimpose sanctions in the coming months, as he has threatened to do.
The United States has maintained its own sanctions on Iran, blocking almost all trade with the country, but plane makers were given a specific exemption under the nuclear deal. The US Treasury Department, which must approve each such sale, has done so for 80 Boeing jets and 100 Airbus planes for Iran Air. The first few Airbus jets have already arrived in Teheran.
Boeing faces heavy criticism from US lawmakers, who say Iranian airlines have been used to ship weapons and troops to Syria and other conflict zones.