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Spaniards Questions Safety of Chartered Military Planes as Country Mourns Peacekeepers Killed in Crash - 2003-05-27

Flags are at half staff across Spain in mourning for the death of 62 Spanish peacekeepers in a plane crash near the northern Turkish city of Trebizond. Spain's worst ever military accident has called into question the chartering of cheap transport for Spanish military personnel. All the bodies of the Spanish soldiers have been recovered from the site of the crash of a Russian-made Yakovlev-42D plane of Ukrainian-Mediterranean Airlines or UM Air. Thirteen crew members were also killed in the accident.

In Spain's worst military accident ever, the plane on Monday hit a mountain before dawn on the third attempt to land in the airport of the Turkish city of Trebizond for refueling. The Spanish press was quick to point out that this is the third international air disaster involving a chartered Ukrainian plane within the past 6 months. Spokesmen of opposition parties questioned why Spanish peacekeeping forces needed to use cheap chartered planes from Ukraine rather than planes from Spain or other European Union countries. The government replied that other NATO allies like France and Italy also used them because they are less expensive.

The Spanish defense minister, Federico Trillo, who immediately traveled to Trebizond and toured the crash with his Turkish counterpart, promised a full investigation into the circumstances of the accident; but he assured that both the plane and the charter company met full security standards required by NATO.

This plane had been charted by the Spanish armed forces seven times previously. Although the cause of the pre-dawn accident is not clear, Mr. Trillo said the bad weather, a combination of fog and strong wind, seemed to be to blame. The plane's three black boxes have been recovered and should help provide a definitive explanation.

The victims of the air crash were the first deaths among Spanish peacekeeping troops deployed in Afghanistan over the 17 months they have been involved in the international mission there. They represented nearly half the Spanish contingent in that country.

The plane took off from Kabul on Sunday and had stopped once in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek and was on its way to Zaragoza. A funeral for the victims is scheduled for Wednesday at Torrejon air base near Madrid.