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Friday, 3 May, 2002, 13:49 GMT 14:49 UK
Indian jet crashes into office building
Wreckage of the bank
The plane ploughed straight into the building
At least seven people have died after an Indian Air Force MiG-21 fighter jet crashed into an office building in the northern state of Punjab.

The Russian-built aircraft had taken off from an air base in Adampur and was on a routine training exercise when it appeared to suffer mechanical failure.

It crashed into a bank building in the heart of the northern city of Jalandhar, 250 kilometres from Delhi.

The two-man crew bailed out before impact, and are now in hospital.

"I saw the fighter jet roll over a couple of times before it hurtled down," said Sunil Malhotra, who witnessed the disaster from the balcony of his house.

"I saw a blast in the sky and within 20 seconds the plane fell. I saw the pilot and co-pilot parachuting down."

Burn victims

The two-storey Bank of Rajasthan building and two other buildings adjacent to it caught fire in the impact.

The blaze was fuelled by plywood stored in the bank and in a building next door.

Six of the dead are bank employees, according to officials in Punjab.

Crash scene
Witnesses described seeing a blast in the sky
It is still unclear how many people were in the bank when the disaster occurred, but reports indicate that more than 20 people have been injured and there are fears the death toll may rise.

District administration official Captain Manish Kumar said five of those injured were suffering from severe burns.

Traffic constable Jaspal Singh, one of the people injured in the blast, said he and another policeman broke a wall of the bank to pull people out.

"There was a lot of smoke. I was injured while trying to save some of the people in the bank," he said.

Rescue mission

Firefighters and air force personnel are still battling to rescue survivors and control the blaze.

Volunteers work with professionals at the scene
Members of the public are helping rescue workers contain the blaze
"Rescue operations are still going on," said senior superintendent Paramjit Singh Gill. "There could be more people trapped."

Mr Malhotra and other witnesses reported that fire engines were delayed or had trouble getting water when they arrived.

He said one fire engine even broke down as it neared the site and bystanders had to push it.

Series of crashes

An air force spokesman said training flights on MiG-21s had been suspended until further notice.

The MiG-21 has a notoriously poor safety record in India, with more than 100 crashes in the past 10 years.

Lack of training facilities and poor maintenance have been blamed for the crashes.

Defence analysts say a programme to upgrade a third of India's MiG-21 fleet is well behind schedule.

A plan to buy advanced jet training aircraft has also been delayed.

More than half of India's jet fighters were built in the former Soviet Union - others are from Britain and France.

The BBC's Jill McGivering
"Local people could hardly believe what they were seeing"
Rahul Bedi, Jane's Defence Weekly
"There is an ongoing programme to update about 125 similar MiGs"
See also:

03 May 02 | South Asia
Eyewitness: Fireball in the sky
04 Jan 01 | South Asia
India tests new combat plane
04 Jan 01 | South Asia
Fighter project beset with problems
29 Feb 00 | South Asia
India boosts defence spending
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