Sun, May 11, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Scores die in mid-air disaster

CONGO CALAMITY Survivors are in shock after the cargo ramp on their Soviet-made jet flew open in mid-flight, sending most of the 200 passengers flying out the door


Scores of people were feared to have been sucked to their deaths over the Democratic Republic of Congo after the back ramp of a Soviet-era cargo plane burst open while in flight.

Army officers, aviation officials, Western diplomats and a survivor all said well over 100 soldiers and their family members had been killed in the disaster on Friday.

Information Minister Kikaya Bin Karubi said he had been informed of seven dead so far.

"I was asleep and then I heard people screaming," one survivor, Prudent Mukalayi, told reporters at Kinshasa's general hospital.

"When I woke up the pilot told everyone to get to the front of the plane and there were about 40 of us, but people kept dying... there were only about 20 survivors."

He said there were as many as 200 people on board, including soldiers and their wives and children.

The government has ordered an immediate inquiry.

The information minister said the ramp of the Ilyushin 76 burst open at about 10,000 feet (3,000m) late on Thursday. Other reports said the accident actually happened at 10,000m (33,000 feet).

"The air force and the army are looking into the problem as we speak. We want to find out whether this is a human error or a mechanical problem," the minister told reporters late on Friday.

He said he had no idea how many people had been on board the Russian-built jet, which was ferrying troops from Kinshasa to the Democratic Republic of Congo's second city of Lubumbashi.

A tight army guard was put around the military hospital where most survivors were being kept.

A Congolese military pilot told Reuters that many people had died.

He said members of a police rapid response force had demanded to board the plane at the last minute after it was already packed.

Western diplomats in touch with Congolese officials said they believed the death toll was as high as 180.

The army and the government often charter cargo planes to transport military personnel and civil servants, many with their families, between Kinshasa and Lubumbashi -- in the mineral-rich southern province of Katanga.

Going overland is not an option for long distance travel because of the destruction that decades of war and decline have wrought on roads and railways in the vast former Belgian colony.

Planes are often old and poorly maintained, though, and the safety record is dire.

In its worst air disaster, a Russian-built Antonov-32 ploughed into a crowded Kinshasa market place just after takeoff in 1996.

At least 350 people were killed in that accident.

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