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Technical problem cited in fatal Azerbaijani crash

BAKU, Azerbaijan -- The failure of an Azerbaijani airliner's control system probably caused it to crash, killing all 23 people on board, an airline official said yesterday.

But Ilham Amirov, the deputy chief of Azerbaijani Airlines, said it was too early to dismiss other possible causes, including a terrorist attack, of Friday night's crash of the An-140 twin-engine turboprop.

The development of the An-140, designed by Ukraine's Antonov company, has been troubled because of the severe funding problems that crippled the country's aviation industries after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

A plane of the same make crashed in Iran in December 2002, killing all 44 people on board. Azerbaijan was the first foreign commercial customer for the An-140, capable of carrying 50 passengers on medium-range flights.

Friday's crash killed all 18 passengers and five crew members, said Rustam Usubov, Azerbaijan's first deputy prosecutor general.

The passenger list included eight foreigners -- a Briton, an Australian, a Turk, a Georgian and four Kazakhs, said Valida Aslanova, a dispatcher at the international airport in the capital, Baku, where the plane took off shortly before the crash.

The plane was en route to Aktau, a city on Kazakhstan's Caspian Sea coast, when it crashed on the Caspian shoreline, about 20 miles north of Baku.

Emergency workers combed the wreckage yesterday for clues to the cause, and Usubov said they were still looking for the flight data and voice recorders. Some wreckage was in water within 10 feet of shore.

Local television stations reported that wreckage was spread over an area about a mile wide, a pattern that could indicate an explosion.

''I saw how the plane was flying away from the airport and that flames were coming from its rear part," said Hamid Imamverdiyev, a 17-year-old resident in the crash area. ''Then there was a roar from the plane falling onto the shore."

Another witness, who gave only his first name, Hafiz, said the plane was flying low and caught fire shortly before slamming into the ground.

''We were shocked by the terrible scene -- there were body fragments scattered all over the area and one dead woman was still sitting in her chair," he said.

Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliev, visited the crash site and sent his condolences to the victims' families.

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