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US, Kyrgyzstan Dispute Cause of Aircraft Crash

A report by the U.S. military says a collision between one of its aircraft and a Kyrgyz passenger jet on the ground at Bishkek's airport in September was caused by poor air traffic control and missed communications between Kyrgyz controllers and the American pilots. The conclusions contradict a report by the Kyrgyz government, which blames the U.S. pilots for the incident. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

According to a copy of the report made available to VOA by a U.S. defense official, the Kyrgyz air traffic controller failed to confirm that the American fuel tanker was off of the runway before he cleared the passenger jet for takeoff.

The Kyrgyz plane's right wing hit one of the American plane's engines, causing a fire and severe damage to the U.S. aircraft. The American crew evacuated the plane safely, and the Kyrgyz plane took off and quickly landed with no injuries, even though it had lost about three meters of its wing.

While the American report, presented to Kyrgyz authorities Wednesday, primarily blames the air traffic controller for not confirming that the runway was clear, it also notes that the U.S. pilots acknowledged an order to move their plane to a taxiway. The American pilot questioned the order because that taxiway was not supposed to be used after dark. According to the American report, the controller told the plane to stop, apparently not realizing it was still partly blocking the runway.

At the same time, the pilots were communicating with an American liaison official in the control tower about the problem with the Kyrgyz order. That official is blamed for not noticing that one of his instructions to the plane was misunderstood, and that the plane was not where he wanted it to be.

The American report contradicts a report by a Kyrgyz government commission. That group blamed the accident on the U.S. pilots, saying when they acknowledged the order to clear the runway the controller reasonably concluded they had done so. But the Kyrgyz report notes several other contributing factors, including a lack of lighting along that part of the runway, the inability of controllers in the airport tower to see that part of the field and the use of non-standard phrases in communications between American planes and the Kyrgyz control tower.

The U.S. Air Force uses the Manas Airport near Bishkek to provide support to the U.S. and NATO missions in Afghanistan, mainly air-to-air refueling from planes like the one involved in this accident. The United States has been using the facility since shortly after the September 11 attacks in 2001 and has been no other serious air traffic control incidents.

The conflicting reports on the collision come after another incident at the facility that has caused tension in U.S.-Kyrgyz relations. On December sixth, a U.S. airman killed a Kyrgyz citizen at a checkpoint on the airport grounds.

On Monday, according to the U.S. embassy in Bishkek, Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch told the Kyrgyz government it can send a representative to observe the interrogation of the airman, and can submit questions. But the embassy says the ambassador declined a Kyrgyz request to hand over the airman.

The ambassador informed the Kyrgyz government that under the agreement for use of the base, the United States has jurisdiction over the incident, as it does on bases it uses throughout the world. The ambassador also disputed a Kyrgyz statement that the man has "immunity," saying that if the investigation finds evidence he did something wrong, he will be prosecuted under U.S. military law.

Because of these two incidents, some members of the Kyrgyz parliament have called for a renegotiation of the agreement for U.S. use of the base. A Pentagon spokesman who requested anonymity said he is not aware of any official request to do that. The Kyrgyz and U.S. governments agreed to continue the American use of the base last year, after neighboring Uzbekistan ordered U.S. forces to stop using one of its air bases.