The US military C-130 airplane crashed in bad weather on late Thursday near the remote village of Rovie, in the Drizez mountains, about 100km southeast of the capital, Tirana, officials said. The exact cause of the crash was unknown.

The nine were Americans taking part in a joint exercise with Albanian forces, Albanian army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Pellumb Qazimi said on Friday.

Four bodies were found earlier on Friday, and five more were found inside the plane. The military transport was assigned to the 352nd Special Operations Group, based in Mildenhall in England.

Cause of crash

US military officials in Stuttgart, Germany, said the cause of the crash was being investigated but declined to comment on the fate of the crew, saying in a statement that the ''status of the individuals on board is yet to be determined.''

''I have no confirmation from any of my official channels,'' said Maj. Holly Silkman in Stuttgart, adding that US and Albanian search-and-rescue teams were still at the site and that ''Albanians have been extremely helpful.''

Albania, which is seeking eventual membership in Nato, has close ties to the US military. It has backed the US-led campaign in Iraq with a unit of 71 soldiers and has peacekeeping contingents in Afghanistan and Bosnia. The US ambassador to Albania, Marcie B. Ries, thanked Qazimi for the search effort.

''This is an example of the excellent cooperation existing between the United States and Albania,'' Ries said. ''We are very grateful or the tremendous support from the Albanian military.''