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Unmanned Russian Rocket Crashes In Kazakhstan

  • RFE/RL

An unmanned Russian rocket carrying three satellites has crashed shortly after liftoff at the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan.

The Russian Space Agency said in a statement that the Proton-M booster rocket unexpectedly shut down an engine 17 seconds into the flight and crashed some 2 kilometers away from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Dramatic television footage showed the rocket veering off course seconds after liftoff, rotating, and falling apart in the air and crashing in a ball of fire.

Russian officials said there were no immediate reports of casualties or damage.

Meanwhile, the Interfax news agency quoted Kazakh Emergency Situations Minister Vladimir Bozhkov as saying that the burning rocket fuel had generated a toxic cloud above the launch pad.

But he said the authorities had yet to determine its potential danger to the environment.

WATCH: Kazakh civil society activists delivered a petition to the Russian consulate in Almaty on July 2 to protest against Russian space launches in Kazakhstan. Activists say toxic rocket fuel presents a danger to the people and the environment.

Talgat Musabaev, the head of Kazakh space company Kazkosmos, said that access to the cosmodrome area had been blocked.

"The space center has been cordoned off by the Russian forces and nobody is being allowed into the territory of the space center, as it poses a great danger to anyone who would venture there," Musabaev said.

Earlier reports said Kazakh emergency authorities were considering evacuating nearby towns in the sparsely populated area due to health fears over the toxic rocket fuel burning at the crash site.

However, Musabaev sought to dispel concerns, saying that "[space center] experts presume there is no immediate danger for the population of the Baikonur city and Akay and Toretam settlements."

State-run Rossia-24 television said the estimated loss from the three satellites, meant for Russia's troubled Glonass satellite navigation system, was about $200 million.

There have been several similar incidents in previous years. In the most recent one, another Proton-M booster crashed at Baikonur in August 2012 when it failed to place two satellites into orbit.

Russian space officials have blamed the failures on manufacturing flaws and engineering mistakes. But critics say the cause is a post-Soviet lack of modernization of Russia's space industry.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, Reuters, ITAR-TASS, and Interfax