All eight crew members were killed when a Ukrainian operated cargo plane crashed in Greece en route from Serbia to Bangladesh carrying military goods, the Serbian defence minister said Sunday.
Witnesses said they saw the privately operated Antonov on fire and heard explosions. Videos shared on social media showed the plane engulfed by a giant fireball as it hit the ground late Saturday.
"Sadly, according to the information we have received, the eight members of the crew died in the crash," Serbian Defence Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic told a news conference.
The Antonov An-12 took off from Nis airport in southern Serbia at around 8:40 pm (1840 GMT) on Saturday, carrying "around 11 tonnes of military industry goods" namely mines from Valir, a private Serbian company, to the Bangladeshi defence ministry, Stefanovic said.
Ukraine's foreign ministry said the eight crew were Ukrainian citizens. "The preliminary cause of the accident is the failure of one of the engines," said spokesman Oleg Nikolenko on Facebook.
Denys Bogdanovych, general director of Meridian, the Ukrainian airline operating the plane, also told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle that the crew were all Ukrainian.
Debris was scattered across a wide area and the crash site surrounded by fields was visible from the air, an AFP photographer said.
"We heard a deafening noise (and saw) a fireball approaching the ground. Then came the explosion," Sofia, a mother of three from the nearby village of Antifilipi told Athens News Agency (ANA).
The Greek fire brigade said the plane crashed at around 11:00 pm near Paleochori village around 23 kilometres (14 miles) northwest of the city of Kavala in northern Greece.
- Toxic fumes -
Greek air control said the plane requested clearance to make an emergency landing at the airport in Kavala but did not make it.
The Bangladesh military confirmed that they had been the intended recipients of the cargo.
The aircraft had been carrying "training mortar shells procured from Serbia for the Bangladesh Army" and border guard before it crashed in Greece, said the military's public relations office.
"There was no weapon in the shipment and the shipment was covered by insurance," it added.
Greek rescue services deployed a drone to monitor the wreckage.
Biological and chemical weapons experts from the army were expected to comb the crash site during the day, the civil protection ministry said.
Villagers were forbidden from going into nearby fields until authorities could remove the wreckage and unexploded ammunition.
People living within a two-kilometre radius of the crash site were asked to stay inside and wear face masks late Saturday.
Two firemen were taken to hospital early on Sunday with breathing difficulties because of toxic fumes.
- 'Engine on fire' -
Fire brigade official Marios Apostolidis told reporters staff with "special equipment and measuring instruments" had inspected the point of impact and fuselage.
ANA said an investigation would be launched into the cause of the accident.
Resident Giorgos Archontopoulos told Greek state broadcaster ERT he sensed something was wrong as soon as he heard the aircraft overhead.
"I went outside and saw the engine on fire," he said.
"If it had crashed some seconds earlier, it would have hit our house," 80-year-old Michalis Emmanouilidis, visibly shaken, told ANA.
Ukraine's consul in Thessaloniki, Vadim Sabluk, visited the area on Sunday and the Greek foreign ministry expressed its "sincere condolences" to the victims' families.
ANA said Sabluk confirmed the identities of the crew and the plane's destination.
Serbia's defence minister said the weapons shipment was not linked to Russia's war in Ukraine.
"Unfortunately, some media have speculated that the plane was carrying weapons destined for Ukraine but that is completely untrue," he said.