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ISLAMABAD/KOHAT, Feb 20: Pakistan Air Force chief Air Chief Marshal Mushaf Ali Mir, his wife and all the 16 others on board, including some senior PAF officers, perished when the plane carrying them crashed on a mountain in fog near Kohat on Thursday.

Air Chief Marshal Mushaf Mir, who was born on March 5, 1947, joined the PAF on Jan 22, 1967 and was appointed Chief of the Air Staff on Nov 20, 2000. He leaves behind a son and two daughters.

The officers killed with the air chief on the trip were Air Vice-Marshal (AVM) Abdul Razzaq, AVM Saleem A. Nawaz, Air Cdre Syed Javaid Sabir, Air Cdre Rizwanullah Khan, Group Captain Aftab Cheema, Wing Commander Syed Tabassam Abbas and Cpl Tech Amjad.

The eight crewmen were: Sqn Ldr Ahmed Yusuf, captain; Sqn Ldr Abdur Rab, co-pilot; Sqn Ldr Mumtaz Kiani, navigator; Snr Tech Khan Muhammad, air steward; Snr Tech Ashraf, Snr Tech Ghazanfar, Cpl Tech Fayyaz and Cpl Tech Khush Qadam Shah.

The air chief’s wife Bilqis Mushaf Ali Mir was the sister of Maj-Gen Hussain Mehdi, the DG, Rangers, Punjab.

No immediate information was available about the cause of one of Pakistan’s most deadly plane crashes in recent years that happened when the Chief of the Air Staff was flying in a PAF Fokker-27 from Islamabad for an annual inspection of the Kohat air base.

While the government ordered a high-level inquiry into what President Pervez Musharraf called a “great national tragedy”, an aviation expert said bad weather could be the likely cause in view of heavy rains for five days, during which about 100 people have died in rain-related incidents across the country.

Officials called for caution about speculation of foul play being responsible for the crash of the plane not far from the Afghan border across which US-led forces are fighting the remnants of Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network and the Taliban movement.

A PAF spokesman said the plane, which had taken off from Chaklala air base at 8am, lost contact with air controllers before crashing in the Taulanj mountain near Gambat village, some 17 miles west of Kohat.

NO DISTRESS CALL: There was no distress call from the pilot.

“The Fokker plane, carrying the CAS, his wife and seven other officers, was from the VIP squadron of the PAF. It was air worthy and had passed the usual inspections before taking off, with weather good for flying,” PAF spokesman Air Commodore Sarfraz Ahmed told reporters at a news briefing.

However, a Dawn correspondent in Kohat quoted witnesses as saying the plane flew at a very low altitude before it crashed amid fog and drizzle. Two explosions were heard following the crash. Flames and smoke rose from the hilltop.

“It was believed to be an accident and it would be premature to attribute it to an incident of sabotage or terrorism,” Air Commodore Sarfraz Ahmed said, requesting the press not to speculate till the official inquiry came to a conclusion.

He evaded a question about the possibility of the plane being hit by firing from across the border in eastern Afghanistan, which has been a hot spot for more than a year after coalition forces launched military operations there against the remnants of Taliban and Al Qaeda in late 2001.

FOKKER RELIABILITY: A private television network quoted a former chief pilot of Pakistan International Airlines, Ahmed Faizi, as saying he thought some “meteorological phenomenon” could be responsible for the crash.

He described the Dutch-made Fokker as “one of the safest planes” to fly in Pakistan’s mountainous regions and he would not doubt the PAF would have well maintained the plane that crashed on Thursday.

A PIA Fokker had disappeared along with its passengers and crew while flying to the Northern Areas in 1989.

The PAF spokesman said a high-powered board of inquiry headed by Air Marshal Khalid Chaudhry had immediately started investigations that would take in all aspects of the crash while preparing and submitting its report to the government. It would be for the government to decide whether to make the report public or not.

He said bodies of the crash victims had been brought from the wreckage to PAF’s Chaklala base for a funeral ceremony set for 10am on Friday. The bodies will later be sent to ancestral towns or villages of the dead.

The plane’s captain lost communication with the Kohat base after he took permission for descending from a high altitude around 8.20am and there was no anxiety or fear in his voice while delivering the last message, the spokesman said.

He said Vice Chief of Air Staff Air Marshal Syed Qaiser Hussain had taken over as acting Chief of Air Staff and the PAF was in readiness position.

Thursday’s plane crash was the worst involving a military plane since the mysterious Aug 17, 1988 C-130 transport crash near Bahawalpur that had killed then president Gen Mohammad Ziaul Haq, several other senior army officers, and the US ambassador to Pakistan.

Responding to various questions, the PAF spokesman said a total of 11 plane crashes had occurred in the PAF last year while Thursday’s incident was the second of the current year, which, he said, was not abnormal according to international aviation standards of military planes.

He said it was routine for senior officers to accompany the air chief on inspection tours of PAF bases. Wives of air chiefs often travelled with their husbands to greet the wives and children of the lower cadres of the PAF.

The spokesman said as a matter of routine, air base inspections were notified at least 15 days prior to the schedule.

To another query, the spokesman said the Kohat air base was not being used by any foreign forces, including that of the United States.

Dawn’s Kohat correspondent Abdul Sami Paracha reported that a team of experts had arrived from Islamabad and Peshawar to ascertain the reasons for the crash, and its members held their first meeting in the afternoon at the office of the commander of the Kohat air base.

“The rescue in charge said it was a very special flight in which senior officials were travelling and manned by experienced pilots. He said such planes would undergo thorough checking by engineers and were allowed to fly after they were hundred per cent sure of its technical condition”.

HOVERING AND BLAST: Another Dawn correspondent, Mohammed Riaz, reported from Taulanj Jadeed, near Kohat, that people saw the PAF plane hovering the nearby mountain before crashing with a powerful blast.

He quoted local Gambat union council member Taj Ali as saying he heard a powerful blast which shook the entire area.

“I went straight to the mosque and informed people over the loudspeaker about the blast and urged them to rush to the site,” Ali said. “When, after an hour, we reached on the top of the mountain, we saw debris enveloped in smoke and fire.”

Khewa Din, an ex-army sepoy, told Dawn that they had collected 17 bodies, including that of a woman. Some of the bodies were so mutilated that they could not be identified.

The PAF personnel were busy in their rescue operations till the evening. Earlier, PAF helicopters airlifted the bodies and brought them to PAF hospital in Kohat.

Councillor Taj Ali said he along with others had helped to put four bodies in one helicopter and 10 in another one. Later, PAF personnel had encircled the entire area to collect wreckage. The black box was not found by any villager, Ali said.

People of Gambat, Taulanj and nearby villages had rushed to the crash site.

Day of mourning: Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali has announced Friday a day of national mourning for the 17 victims of the PAF plane crash.

The national flag will fly at half mast on the day, an official announcement said.