ASTANA, Kazakhstan — Kazakhstan on Dec. 26 mourned the deaths of 27 people in one of its worst aviation disasters, a tragedy that wiped out much of the top echelon of the state border service, including the acting chief.
The KNB state security service confirmed that all 27 crew and servicemen onboard the An-72 military jet were killed Dec. 25 when it crashed close to Shymkent airport in the south of the country.
“All 27 occupants of the aircraft, including seven crew members, have perished,” the National Security Service (KNB) said in a statement.
The victims included the acting head of the Kazakh federal border service, Turganbek Stambekov, and his wife, the statement said. The disaster also claimed the lives of much of the top leadership of the border service, with a total of 11 top officials killed in the disaster. Another five lieutenant colonels from the regional Ontustik border unit were killed as well as three rank-and-file servicemen.
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev declared Dec. 27 a day of national mourning and expressed his “deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of the dead,” the presidency said. He ordered a full investigation of the causes of the disaster as well assistance to the victims’ families.
The head of the KNB, Nurtai Abykayev, told reporters in Shymkent that the causes of the disaster could have been “the weather conditions, the human factor and the technical condition of the aircraft.”
The black box of the plane has been found, he added, as quoted by the Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency.
The KNB said the passengers had been attending a meeting of border guards in the capital Astana and were on their way to an end-of-year security meeting in Shymkent.
The 22-year-old plane crashed late Dec. 25 about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Shymkent airport, where it had been due to land after a flight from Astana. Kazakhstan’s KTK television said the jet fell from a height of 800 meters (2,600 feet). Witnesses also reported hearing a loud explosion at the time of the crash.
Footage of the crash site aired on Kazakh state television on Dec. 26 showed only fragments of the An-72 military transport plane remaining on the ground. But the KNB security service stressed that the plane had recently undergone all the necessary checks and repairs.
“In 2012, it underwent restoration work at the Antonov repair plant in Ukraine,” its statement said. Khabar state television also cited local residents as saying that a heavy winter storm had descended on the region at the time of the accident. It said the plane caught fire after the crash.
Kazakh officials sealed off the site of the disaster on Dec. 26 as they launched an investigation into one of the most serious air accidents in the country’s post-Soviet history.
The border guard service of Kazakhstan — a vast resource-rich nation nestled between China and Russia — had already experienced tragedy this year. Its acting head, Stambekov, was appointed to his post in June after his predecessor was fired following a May incident in which 14 border guards were shot dead in a remote outpost in the south of the country. The sole border guard to survive the shooting confessed during a subsequent trial that he killed his colleagues but retracted his confession after being handed a life sentence, saying unidentified people in civilian clothes were responsible.
Aviation disasters remain a scourge across the former Soviet Union due to aging hardware that often has not been replaced since the fall of the Soviet regime, as well as human error. In November, eight people were killed in Kazakhstan when a Russian-made Mi-8 helicopter crashed while on a pipeline surveillance mission.