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(3rd LD) N. Korean military plane crashes in China, killing pilot: source

All Headlines 17:34 August 18, 2010

(ATTN: ADDS South Korean military's response, quote in paras 7-9; AMENDS dateline)

SHENYANG, China/SEOUL, Aug. 18 (Yonhap) -- A North Korean airplane that appeared to be a Soviet-era jet fighter crashed in a Chinese border area, killing the pilot aboard who may have been attempting to defect to Russia, intelligence sources in Shenyang said Wednesday.

The crash took place in Fushun Prefecture in the province of Liaoning Tuesday afternoon, the sources said, adding the pilot was the only person aboard the plane when it crashed.

"The pilot died on the spot," one source said, adding the Chinese authorities were able to identify the nationality of the airplane only after the crash.

Chinese authorities had confirmed that a small aircraft flew into their territory but did not identify its origin. Photos of the wreckage purportedly taken by a Chinese resident and uploaded on the Internet showed the North Korean flag on the tail of the plane.

Another source said that the plane is believed to have lost its direction while flying to Russia after escaping North Korea. China has a repatriation pact with North Korea, which may have led the pilot to choose Russia as his destination.

Some experts said the plane appeared to be a MiG-15, a model widely deployed during the 1950-53 Korean War but now used mostly for training. South Korea's military said it was more likely a MiG-21, citing a radar detection of the North Korean aircraft leaving an air base near the border with China.

"Radar images show the North Korean aircraft took off from the air base in Sinuiju," an official in Seoul said, based on images captured by the Air Force's Monitor Control and Reporting Center (MCRC) that monitors activities of North Korean aircraft.

"According to the images, it appears to be a MiG-21," the official said on the condition of anonymity.

Fushun is about 200 kilometers away from the Sinuiju air base. The number of North Korean soldiers defecting from their impoverished homeland has increased in recent months as food shortages deepen, observers say.

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