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Cargo plane shot down in Somalia

Missile downs aircraft linked to peacekeeping

African Union troops kept guard yesterday from the top of a building in central Mogadishu, Somalia. (JOSE CENDON/AFP/Getty Images)

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- A cargo plane that had delivered equipment for Ugandan peacekeepers in the Somali capital was shot down by a missile during takeoff yesterday, the owner of the plane said. A witness said the aircraft crashed in flames after one of its wings fell into the Indian Ocean.

The fate of the 11-member crew was unknown.

Egi Azarian, the acting head of Belarus-based Transaviaexport , confirmed that the company's plane was shot down yesterday.

Transaviaexport, based in Minsk, Belarus, operates only Ilyushin-76s, one of the largest cargo planes in the world. The aircraft requires a crew of six, is 153 feet long and can carry nearly 50 tons of cargo.

Muse Sheik Osman, who lives in the north of the city, said he saw the burning plane come down and heard the sound of an antiaircraft missile being fired shortly before the crash.

Captain Paddy Ankunda, spokesman for the Ugandan peacekeepers in Somalia, confirmed a crash. Ankunda said he did not know the nationalities of the crew or whether they had survived, but said: "We are afraid that they have gone."

Muse Hassan, a resident of north Mogadishu, said he saw the burning plane flying at a low altitude along the beach. "One of the wings fell in the ocean and smoke was coming from the bottom of the plane," Hassan said.

Abdi Mohumed, another resident of northern Mogadishu, said he saw fire and smoke billowing from the plane. "I have seen one of plane's wings burning and heard a very loud sound. I was so terrified," he said.

A plane carrying several African Union peacekeepers made an emergency landing on March 9. An Islamic group claimed it had hit that plane with a missile. Four days later, a Belarus official confirmed the plane had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Yesterday's crash came at the end of a particularly violent week in Mogadishu that killed dozens of people, most of them civilians.

The United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that it received reports of thousands of Mogadishu residents fleeing to nearby towns.

Much of the violence halted yesterday as a truce took effect between military officials from Ethiopia, which sent troops to neighboring Somalia last year to help overthrow the Islamic movement that had overtaken much of the country, and elders of the dominant clan in Somalia's capital.

Still, sporadic gunfire could be heard around the former defense ministry building in southern Mogadishu, which has been one of the front lines in the two days of fighting. One civilian was killed early yesterday, possibly by a stray bullet, said Mohamed Barre Olad, who lives near the former defense ministry headquarters. Olad saw the body as he walked home. He said he saw also a wounded man being taken to a hospital in a wheelchair.

An elder, Mohammed Ibrahim Aden, said 25 Hawiye clan elders met with "several Ethiopian [military] officials" late Thursday and agreed to stop hostilities and begin talks. Meanwhile, Kenya deported more than 100 people from 19 countries to Somalia after they illegally crossed the border.