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A relative of Arbaoui Walid, a victim of an Algerian military plane crash, mourns during his funeral in Algiers, Algeria April 12, 2018 REUTERS/Ramzi Boudina

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By Hamid Ould Ahmed

ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algerians, many of them weeping, queued at a hospital on Thursday to identify the victims of the country's worst plane disaster which killed 257 people.

The Russian Ilyushin Il-76 military transporter crashed on Wednesday after takeoff from the Boufarik air base southwest of Algiers. Witnesses said a wing had caught fire.

Most of the dead were soldiers but also included some members of the Polisario Front, an Algerian-backed group fighting for the independence of neighbouring Western Sahara, a territory also claimed by Morocco in a long-running dispute.

The plane, which had also been carrying refugees, had been heading to Tindouf on the border with Western Sahara, where tens of thousands of people displaced by the standoff live in camps.

Relatives hugged coffins draped in the Algerian flag after receiving the bodies of their kin at a military hospital in Algiers where victims had been brought. Many women prayed while others held up pictures of dead relatives.

"You feel as you have lost your brother. I lost two of my friends in this crash," 20-year old Ahmed said.

Most merchants near the airbase remained closed for business in a mark of respect for the dead and their families.

"We are shocked. It's not time to think about money. Yesterday's scenes are still in our memories," said Mohamed, standing near his shop.

"My friend survived the plane (crash) but he is still in hospital," said Djamel, one of dozens of people who gathered near the crash site on Thursday.

State radio said the pilot had averted an even worse disaster by bringing the plane down in a field away from a nearby busy highway.

"The plane will crash. I'll try to prevent it from crashing into a built-up area," the pilot told the control tower, according to the radio.

Victims come from across the vast North African country, including the capital Algiers, where tens of people gathered outside the home of Seddiki Mehre, the plane's co-pilot.

"We are very sad. We are waiting for the body. His wife and three children are in a pitiful state," said Seddiki Rabie, his father.

(Reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed and Abelaziz Boumzar; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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Reuters