JANNAT ABAD, Iran (Reuters) - Two badly damaged black box recorders have been recovered from a Tupolev aircraft that crashed in Iran on Wednesday, killing all 168 people on board, official media reported on Thursday.
The cause of the worst air disaster in the Islamic Republic for six years was still unknown, state television said.
The Russian-built Caspian Airlines aircraft was on its way to neighboring Armenia's capital Yerevan when it came down after catching fire in mid-air and plowing into farmland 16 minutes after departing Tehran.
The aircraft exploded on impact and left scattered bits of incinerated metal and fragments of the bodies of 153 passengers and 15 crew across a wide area around a deep smoking crater.
Relatives and friends gathered at the site and threw flowers in the crater where the victims perished.
Sebouh Sarkissian, the Armenian Christian archbishop in Tehran, was also there. Iran is home to some 100,000 ethnic Armenians, many of whom frequently use the flights between Tehran and Yerevan.
"Because of the severity of the crash, the two black box recorders found are badly damaged, even though they are made of steel," Majidi told Mehr.
"The tapes were out on the ground. We might send the black box to the country where it was manufactured (Russia) to chase the issue with their help," he said.
Majidi said DNA testing would be needed to identify the remains. Most of those onboard were Iranians, but there were also Armenian and Georgian citizens. Eight members of Iran's national junior judo team and two coaches were among the dead.
"I lost three family members in the tragedy. We have been hurt beyond description," said an elderly Armenian man as he and other relatives of those killed arrived in Tehran from Yerevan.
Many wearing black, they wept as they embraced other family members and friends waiting at Tehran's international airport.
"I lost my fiance in the tragedy and my entire life is now changed," said Shirin Abdi, 23, with tears running down her face. "Something which did not have to happen has taken place and it is beyond anyone's control."
The United States, the Islamic Republic's arch foe, extended condolences on Wednesday to families of the victims.
Washington has no diplomatic ties with Tehran but has been trying to engage the country as part of an effort to coax it into negotiations over its disputed nuclear program.
U.S. sanctions bar the sale of Boeing aircraft to Iran and hinder it buying other aircraft or spares from the West, many of which rely on U.S.-built engines and parts.
An Iranian insurance company said it would pay 42,000 euros ($58,800) for each victim, state radio reported.
Air safety experts have said Iran has a poor record, with a string of crashes in the past few decades -- many involving Russian-made aircraft.
It was the deadliest crash in Iran since 2003 when an Ilyushin Il-76, also Russian built, crashed into a mountain.
(Additional reporting by Zahra Hosseinian and Hashem Kalantari in Tehran, Hasmik Mkrtchyan in Yerevan, Conor Sweeney and Anton Doroshev in Moscow and Washington bureau; Writing by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Angus MacSwan)