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Up to five US soldiers feared dead as military plane crashes in southern Kyrgyzstan

A U.S. military refuelling plane exploded in mid air and crashed in southern Kyrgyzstan today, the Central Asian country's Emergencies Ministry said.

The aircraft took off from the U.S. military transit centre at Kyrgyzstan's international Manas airport, which U.S. forces maintain for operations in Afghanistan, the Interfax news agency reported.

The plane, used for inflight refuelling, disappeared from radar screens at 3.10 p.m. (0910 GMT), as it flew near the Kyrgyz village of Chaldovar, the ministry said.

"(The plane) caught fire in the air and crashed," said a ministry official responsible for the southern Kyrgyz province of Chuisk, where Chaldovar is located, some 60 km (40 miles) from the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek.

Officials did not say where the plane was heading, and the U.S. transit centre has declined to comment.

A civil aviation official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said storm clouds over the region could have caused the explosion, Interfax reported.

Kyrgyz Emergencies Minister Kubatbek Boronov told Russian state television there were between two and five crew members on board the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker.

The ministry said witnesses saw the plane explode in the air, and a local government official said that debris was scattered over a 4 to 5 km area in a nearby mountainous area.

"Everything that has burnt has been consumed, larger debris like the chassis is still burning," regional governmental official Kanat Davletov said

"(Rescue workers) on horseback have gone into the mountains to look for the crew while it is still light."

Manas, established as a military base in December 2001, is used to transport U.S. personnel in and out of Afghanistan and has been used by other international forces fighting in the country.

U.S. forces lease the facility for $60 million a year.

The contract for the transit centre, located near the Manas international airport near the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, will expire in July of next year, as Washington draws down its forces from Afghanistan.

PA Media