Plane Carrying Aid Workers Goes Down in Congo

Published: September 2, 2008

NAIROBI, Kenya — Seventeen people were feared dead in eastern Congo after a small plane carrying United Nations employees and other aid workers apparently slammed into a mountainside, United Nations officials said Tuesday.

The plane disappeared during a fierce thunderstorm on Monday afternoon, and the crash site is so steep, remote and thickly forested that rescuers have been unable to reach it. United Nations helicopters have been circling the wreckage, but so far there are no signs of life.

“From the air, it definitely seems like there were no survivors,” said Christophe Illemassene, a United Nations spokesman in Congo. “The wreckage was very much spread around, and there were no major structures left. This would mean a very strong impact into the mountain wall. This plane most likely slammed into the mountain.”

Congo has one of the world’s worst records for air safety, which is an especially serious problem for the country’s many aid workers because there are few roads. Congo is immense — roughly the size of Western Europe — so small propjets operated by little-known companies are often the only way to get from one city to the next.

In April, more than 30 people were killed when a plane crashed after a flawed takeoff from the eastern city of Goma. In October, dozens were killed after a cargo plane dropped from the sky and plowed into a crowded marketplace in the capital, Kinshasa.

On Monday around 2 p.m., the control tower in Bukavu, a hilly town on the border with Rwanda, lost contact with the plane. The plane was a twin-engine Beechcraft operated by a contractor for Air Serv International, an American nonprofit aviation company that flies humanitarian workers. On board were 15 passengers and two crew members. The passengers were a mix of foreign and Congolese aid workers. Several worked for United Nations agencies in Congo, which has been plagued by civil war for years.

Lashing thunderstorms hampered rescue efforts on Monday, and it was not until Tuesday morning that the United Nations was able to confirm that the plane had crashed, apparently as it was making its final approach into Bukavu. No cause has been determined, though United Nations officials cited the bad weather.

United Nations peacekeepers were trying to reach the site on foot, Mr. Illemassene said Tuesday evening, but even that was proving difficult.

“It’s a very remote area, it’s jungly and it’s raining,” he said.

17 feared dead as U.N. aid flight crashes in Congo

(CNN) — A humanitarian plane carrying 17 people — most of them relief workers — has crashed during a storm in a mountainous region in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the United Nations said Tuesday.

Search and rescue crews were not immediately able to land their helicopter in the area and determine whether anyone survived the crash in the east of the country, said Christope Illemassene, spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the capital city of Kinshasa.

But Air Serv International, the relief group that operated the plane, said an aerial survey has indicated that all the occupants on the Beechcraft 1900 plane died.

The plane was on a routine flight from Kinsasha to the eastern city of Goma on Monday, with three stops, Illemassene said.

Air-traffic controllers lost contact with the plane when it approached Bukavu, the last of its three intermediate stops. The weather in the area was stormy at the time, Illemassene said.

Search and rescue crews spotted the plane’s debris Tuesday, about 9.4 miles (15 km) northwest of the Bukavu airport, Illemassene said.

“We’re anxiously waiting for results from the search and rescue operation,” he said. “We’re really hoping the peacekeepers are able to land near the site and confirm whether there are any survivors.”

Air Serv International, based in the U.S. state of Virginia, is one of several groups that provides transport services to relief organizations in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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