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Fifty-six people killed in a plane crash in Turkey

Fifty-six people were killed in an Atlasjet plane crash on a rocky mountain happened shortly before it was due to land in southwest Turkey early Friday. The cause of the disaster is still unknown.

Pieces of wreckage and personal belongings, including suitcases, clothing and magazines, were strewn across the hillside. The plane's fuselage lay amid boulders and pine trees.

The MD-83, carrying 49 passengers and seven crew members, took off from Istanbul around 1 a.m. (2300 GMT Thursday) headed to Isparta on a flight of about one hour, but went off the radar just before landing at the airport.

Dogan news agency released a transcript of the conversation between the Atlasjet pilot and the Isparta control tower, but the exchange did not indicate the plane was in trouble.

The civil aviation authority said communication with the plane was interrupted on its final approach to Suleyman Demirel airport in Isparta at 1:45 a.m. (2345 GMT Thursday).

Just over five hours later, a rescue helicopter reached the plane's wreckage near the village of Yesilyurt, in Isparta province, and reported that no one had survived the crash, said Tuncay Doganer, the airline's chief executive.

Doganer ruled out technical failure and said the weather and visibility were good.

"The pilot saw the airport and informed the tower that it was inbound. The plane then disappeared," he said.

Investigators found the flight data and cockpit voice recorders, which will help them determine what happened, the civil aviation authority said.

Weeping relatives approached the crash site, but were turned away by soldiers and other officials who sought to comfort them. Many bodies were dismembered and not identifiable, firefighter Osman Emir said.

Ali Ceylan said his 22-year-old daughter-in-law, 6-week-old grandson and son's mother-in-law perished in the crash. The baby was born in Istanbul and the family was returning to their home in Isparta.

"We were going to see our grandson for the first time. He died before we were able to see his face," Ceylan said. "It's very hard for us. It's enough to make us go mad."

He said his son, a police officer, was in shock and being treated with tranquilizers.

Cengiz Dincer, a man at the crash site, said two friends were on the plane after a day trip to Istanbul.

"I keep thinking they'll appear from the site, it is difficult to accept that they are gone," he said. "Of course, it is God's will."

Gulperi Ayan, who also traveled to the crash site, said a friend, stage actor Sakir Ozsoy, was on the plane because he was going to attend his grandmother's funeral in Isparta.

"Now we have two funerals to hold," she said.

In a statement, Atlasjet said the wreckage of the plane was found on a mountain around 1,500 (5,000 feet) high, and that rescuers initially had difficulty reaching the site because of the rugged terrain.

The area is called Turbe Tepe, which means "Shrine Peak" in Turkish. Much of the wreckage lay amid snow patches 200 meters (650 feet) from the top of the mountain.

Transport Minister Binali Yildirim said the plane crashed 11 kilometers (7 miles) from the Isparta airport.

Families of those onboard first rushed to the airports of Istanbul and Isparta for news of their loved ones and later headed toward the crash scene.

Turkish media released a list of passengers. All names were Turkish. The dead included a group of academics who planned to take part in a physics conference at an Isparta university. Among them was Engin Arik, a prominent female nuclear physics professor from Istanbul's Bosporus University.

Semsettin Uzun, the governor of Isparta, said the crash site was not on the plane's regular flight route. "It is impossible to understand how the plane" ended up there, said Uzun, who viewed the site from a helicopter.

The plane had broken into pieces, with its fuselage and rear landing in different locations. Anatolia said the plane's wings and engine were at the top of a hill while the fuselage was lower.

Atlasjet, a private airline established in 2001, operates regular flights inside Turkey and chartered flights to Europe and other foreign destinations.

In 2005, one of its planes ran off the runway in winter conditions, but the company had not been involved in any fatal accidents. In August, one of its planes was hijacked by two men who held several passengers hostage for four hours before surrendering.

Previous accidents in Turkey include a Turkish Airlines plane that crashed in January 2003 while attempting to land on a fog-covered runway in the city of Diyarbakir, killing 75 people. Five people survived with injuries.

In May 2003, 62 Spanish soldiers returning from peacekeeping duties in Afghanistan and 13 crew members were killed aboard a Ukrainian charter flight that crashed on a fog-shrouded mountain slope near the Turkish Black Sea port city of Trabzon.

In 1994, a Turkish Airlines jet crashed in the eastern province of Van as the pilot tried to land in a snowstorm despite repeated warnings from the control tower to turn back. Fifty-four people were killed.