Sat, Dec 27, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Airliner falls into sea off Benin

BOTCHED TAKE-OFF The airliner apparently had difficulty retracting its landing gear before slamming into a building at the end of the runway and plunging into the sea

REUTERS , COTONOU, BENIN

A video grab image shows wreckage from the Boeing passenger plane that crashed shortly after takeoff in Benin on Christmas Day, killing dozens of those on board, witnesses and airport officials said.

PHOTO: REUTERS

An airliner crashed into the sea moments after takeoff in Benin on Thursday, killing dozens on board and forcing rescuers to plunge into the waves in the hope of saving others or at least salvaging their bodies.

Onlookers screamed in horror as corpses were washed up on a beach in Cotonou, the West African country's coastal main city.

The Boeing's smashed cockpit, twisted metal and battered suitcases littered the shallow waters at the sea's edge.

"So far we have pulled out 28 bodies, of which three are children," said local administrator Barnabe Bassigli. Television reports in Lebanon -- the plane's intended destination -- said, however, there were several survivors.

Relatives and others dived in to try to overturn a chunk of the fuselage, but were thwarted by a wing rammed into the seabed.

Some relatives who plunged into the water said they did not want their loved ones' bodies disfigured by fish.

Airport officials said the plane had had problems retracting its landing gear after takeoff. It smashed into a building at the end of the runway, exploded and then crashed into the sea.

The aircraft belonged to Union Transport Africaines, owned by two Lebanese, and could carry 141 passengers and crew, they said.

Officials at the control tower in Cotonou said 63 people had boarded the plane in Benin, including 58 adults, three children and two babies. Four were from Benin, and the rest were Lebanese, heading to Beirut for seasonal holidays.

Police sources at the airport in Conakry, capital of Guinea, where the flight originated, said 31 passengers had earlier boarded the plane there, of which 19 were Guineans.

Fishermen, navy divers, the army and local Red Cross workers searched the shores of the Gulf of Guinea for survivors as the president of tiny Benin visited the scene.

West Africa has had Lebanese communities for more than a century and they form the backbone of some economies.

A Beirut airport screen listing arrivals still showed the flight as scheduled to arrive at 11pm local time from Cotonou and Conakry. It gave the flight number as UTI 141.

A handful of family members trickled into Beirut's international airport, clutching mobile phones as they sought information about their relatives.

"My brother and my uncle are on this plane. We have called people we know in Cotonou and they said they got on the plane. Now we don't know what happened to them," one Lebanese man said through tears.

"We hope they are still alive. We don't know their fate," he added, without giving his name.

Some relatives watched news of the crash on television sets in the airport. Others glanced over at other Lebanese, some clutching welcome bouquets as they waiting for happy reunions with relatives arriving on other flights from abroad.

Africa's poorly maintained airliners are prone to disaster. Thursday's crash was the third this year in Africa in which planes have smashed to the ground shortly after takeoff.

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