(Guardian) - An Iranian military plane carrying more than 300 members of the country's Revolutionary Guards crashed in a southeastern province yesterday, almost certainly killing all those on board, the state news agency reported.
The flight was en route from Zahedan, on the Pakistani border, to Kerman, about 500 miles south-east of Tehran. Rescue workers last night searched through the wreckage of the Ilyushin plane that crashed in mountains 50 miles from its destination, near the city of Shahdad.
High-ranking military officials were believed to be among those killed.
Iranian state television said the plane lost contact with the control tower in severe weather but there were no details available as to the cause of the crash. Air traffic controllers at Kerman airport said the pilot had reported bad weather, including strong winds, before losing contact.
Authorities did not mention the possibility of a terrorist attack.
The conservative newspaper Kayhan reported yesterday that security forces had confiscated three surface-to-air missiles from drug smugglers in the region but it was unclear when the seizure took place.
Television reports quoted an unnamed official as saying the Revolutionary Guards had visited the impoverished Sistan-Baluchestan area for an "important mission" but the nature of the mission was not specified.
The Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) are loyal to the conservative clerics ruling Iran and see themselves as the defenders of the Islamic Revolution that toppled the US-backed Shah in 1979. Established in the early days of the revolution by the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, they initially served as a militia to counter the regular army.
The corps has since grown into a branch of the military, though outside the authority of the executive branch. It has a reputation for religious fervor and hardline views, declaring earlier this month that the fatwa against Salman Rushdie in the 1980s still applied.
Yesterday's crash was the latest in a series of air disasters in Iran involving Russian-built aircraft. A Ukrainian An-140 slammed into a mountainside in December while preparing to land, killing all 46 passengers aboard. Last February, a Russian-made Tupolev Tu-154 airliner, carrying 119 people, flew into mountains near Khorramabad.
The transport minister, Ahmad Khorram, has acknowledged that Iran's air industry is suffering from US sanctions and warned that there would be more air disasters if sanctions on the purchase of American-made planes were not lifted.
The 2003 Iran Ilyushin 76 crash was the deadliest aircraft accident in Iran.
The crash, on February 19, 2003, killed 302 people, most of them members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. That crash marked the third Ilyushin 76 crash in Iran.