All eight crew members were killed when a Ukrainian-operated cargo plane carrying military goods crashed in Greece en route from Serbia to Bangladesh, the Serbian defence minister said.
Witnesses said they saw the privately operated Antonov plane on fire and heard explosions. Videos shared on social media showed the aircraft engulfed by a giant fireball as it hit the ground late on Saturday in Paleochori village near the Greek city of Kavala.
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“Sadly, according to the information we have received, the eight members of the crew died in the crash,” Serbian Defence Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic told a news conference on Sunday.
The Antonov An-12 took off from Nis airport in southern Serbia at around 8:40pm (18:40 GMT) on Saturday, carrying “around 11 tonnes of military industry goods” namely mines from Valir, a private Serbian company, to the Bangladeshi defence ministry, Stefanovic said.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry said the eight crew were Ukrainian citizens. “The preliminary cause of the accident is the failure of one of the engines,” said spokesman Oleg Nikolenko on Facebook.
Denys Bogdanovych, general director of Meridian, the Ukrainian airline operating the plane, also told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle that the crew were all Ukrainian.
Video footage from a local channel showed signs of impact on a field and the aircraft in pieces scattered in a large area.
According to state-run TV, the army, explosives experts and Greek Atomic Energy Commission staff will approach the area after it is deemed safe, as fears of the toxicity of the cargo forced them to stay away.
Fire brigade official Marios Apostolidis told reporters: “Men from the fire service with special equipment and measuring instruments approached the point of impact of the aircraft and had a close look at the fuselage and other parts scattered in the fields.”
When the area is deemed secure, the search teams are going to operate, he added.
As a strong smell emanated from the crash site, a coordinating committee made up of municipal, police and fire service officials asked inhabitants of the adjoining areas to take precautions. They were asked to keep their windows shut all night and advised not to leave their homes and to wear masks.
Two firefighters were taken to the hospital early on Sunday with breathing issues because of the toxic fumes.
A local man, Giorgos Archontopoulos, told state broadcaster ERT television that he felt something was wrong as soon as he heard noise from the aircraft.
“At 22:45 [19:45 GMT], I was surprised by the sound of the engine of the aircraft,” he said. “I went outside and saw the engine on fire.”
Local officials said seven fire engines had been deployed to the crash site, but that they could not approach because of the continuing explosions.
David DesRoches, a professor at the National Defense University, told Al Jazeera that explosives in the wreckage would make it difficult to examine the crash site.
“The damage always looks worse because people don’t go and [immediately] put out the fire, they have to sit back and let the fire burn itself out,” he said. “There are also reports that some of the rounds are mortar illumination rounds, which are not normal blast explosives – they tend finely fragmented pieces of metal, which are extremely flammable. So again, that would create some problems for fire fighters and rescuers.”
He said that, until Russia’s invasion, Ukraine was among the world leaders in air cargo services.
“This isn’t some shady, fly-by-night [operation]; it’s an established, well-accepted practice – although they are not subject to some of the same scrutiny a western country would be, they are not part of any European institutions,” he said. “But are a known quantity”.