updated 12/28/2005 9:35:20 PM ET 2005-12-29T02:35:20

The crash of an Azerbaijani airliner that killed 23 people was caused by flight instrument failure, leaving the crew unable to pilot the aircraft, airline officials said Wednesday.

The Ukrainian-built An-140 plane operated by state-run Azerbaijani Airlines crashed on land near the Caspian Sea shore just north of the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, minutes after takeoff late Friday during a flight to Kazakhstan. All 18 passengers and five crew were killed.

Azerbaijan Airlines’ chief Jahangir Askerov said that the study of the plane’s flight recorders revealed that the pilots’ instruments failed immediately after takeoff, making the crew unable to see the plane’s position in the air.

“The crew lost an indication of the plane’s altitude,” Askerov told a news conference. “That made the crew unable to pilot the plane.”

Askerov’s deputy in charge of air safety, Ilham Amirov, said the crew reported a system failure five minutes into the flight and asked air traffic controllers for information on the plane’s altitude and direction.

But the head of the Ukrainian company that built the plane, Pavel Naumenko, disputed the claim that the instruments failed, telling reporters at the same news conference that the plane had three horizon indicators and each of them had a backup energy source. That, Naumenko said, would make the instruments’ simultaneous failure “all but impossible.”

“Yes, it sounds improbable but it’s a fact,” Askerov said, angrily interrupting him.

Azerbaijan was the first foreign commercial customer for the An-140, designed by Ukraine’s Antonov company. It has purchased four such planes, two of which already have been delivered, including the one that crashed.

Azerbaijani Airlines said Monday it has suspended flights by the remaining plane and put plans to acquire two more on hold after the crash.

The An-140, which is capable of carrying about 50 passengers on medium-range flights, has seen a long and strenuous development amid severe funding problems that crippled Ukraine’s aviation industries after the 1991 Soviet collapse.

A plane of the same make crashed in Iran in December 2002, killing all 44 people on board.

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