Crashed Iranian jet may have been spying

RUSSIAN military experts said yesterday the Iranian aircraft that crashed last week in Nagorno-Karabakh's capital of Stepanakert, killing all 34 people on board, may have been spying for Tehran, the official Russian news agency ITAR-Tass reported.

But Iranian and Azeri officials have said the Iranian Defense Ministry's C-130 Hercules transport aircraft could have been shot down by Armenian fighters. Iranian Embassy officials in Moscow could not be reached for comment. The aircraft was carrying mainly Iranian diplomats and their families to Tehran.

The incident not only strains Armenian and Azeri relations with Iran, but heightens tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

``Why did Iranian pilots who knew that medium altitudes over a combat zone are mortally dangerous still fly toward Stepanakert and toward the strategically important Lachin corridor?'' ITAR-Tass quoted a military expert asking. Experts questioned why the crew had not requested emergency landing after it reported a loss in pressure, did not choose to land in former Soviet military airfields in Azerbaijan, and why 13 of the passengers were crew. The aircraft entered Armenia Thursday, where it unexpectedly deviated from the prescribed route.

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