Thursday, June 08, 2006

Chinese Air Crash is Tragedy and Setback

China has suffered its worst-ever military aviation accident--and a serious setback to its military modernization program.

The Chinese military plane that crashed Saturday, killing all 40 people on board, was a surveillance aircraft carrying almost three dozen electronics experts.

The government says the crash is being investigated under direct orders from Chinese President Hu Jintao. The Official Xinhua News Agency said General Guo Boxiong, vice chairman of the ruling Communist Party's commission that oversees the military, is heading up the investigation.

Hu memorialized the victims as having made important contributions to national defense and the modernization of the army.

Two Hong Kong newspapers, Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po, have reported that the crash was the People's Liberation Army's worst-ever aviation disaster, that 35 of those killed were electronics experts and that the five other victims were the plane's crew.

The plane, a KJ-2000, was a Chinese-made, early warning aircraft built on the frame of a Russian IL-76 transport plane--one of four indidengous conversions.

It crashed in Anhui province, about 150 kilometers south of Nanjing, where it was being tested.

The crash--which may have resulted from a midair explosion--is a major blow to China's attempts to develop greater self-sufficiency in high-technology weapons, for which it is now heavily dependent on Russian and Israeli suppliers.

Surveillance planes could play an important role in a war with Taiwan, helping China to project power beyond its borders and challenge American attempts to intervene on the side of the breakaway island that it has promised to help defend.

Disclosure of military accidents in China is rare. In 2003, however, the government reported the deaths of 70 sailors in a submarine accident; and senior officers were punished after an investigation.

China has a history of mysterious military plane crashes, including the 1971 crash that killed defense minister Lin Biao and the 1946 crash that killed the notorious Dai Li, who headed the Koumintang intelligence service during the civil war with the Communists.

Both crashes are believed by many to have been engineered by the legendary spymaster Kang Sheng, seen in the above photo, who ran China's secret service for half a century until his death in 1975.

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