A passenger plane that disappeared in southern Cambodia likely crashed during a storm, and there is little hope of finding survivors among the 22 people who were on board, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said yesterday.
He said he asked for the US to use its high-tech surveillance satellites to help search for the downed plane, believed to have crashed in a mountainous jungle area.
Some 1,000 soldiers and police were combing rough terrain in Kampot province for the PMT Air plane, a Russian-made An-24 that was flying between Siem Reap and Sihanoukville when it disappeared on Monday.
Hun Sen said the plane had been flying in a heavy rainstorm and that there was a "high probability it may have crashed into a mountain as it was descending to land" in Sihanoukville.
He said he asked US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli on Monday for the US government "to redirect its satellites to help search" for the plane.
Jeff Daigle, the US embassy spokesman, said the US is acting on the Cambodian government's request for "satellite imagery to assist in the search for the missing plane."
"But current weather conditions in the search area are hampering our efforts," Daigle said in an e-mail.
Hun Sen visited Kampot town, about 130km southwest of Phnom Penh, to discuss rescue efforts with provincial and military officials.
"Although we have very little hope for any survivors, we must continue searching ... to retrieve bodies," Hun Sen said, expressing his condolences to the families of the victims.
An official at Siem Reap airport said 13 of the passengers were from South Korea -- and three were Czech.
The official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said the plane carried a crew of five Cambodians and a Russian copilot.
Khov Khun Huor, Kampot province's deputy governor, said yesterday that the rescuers have split into two groups in looking for the aircraft. One group was searching near Kamchay Mountain, while a second team focused on the area between Kampot and Sihanoukville, where an explosion was also reportedly heard on Monday.
Provincial Governor Thach Khorn said the government will give a US$5,000 reward to any villager who can lead rescuers to the crash site.
Heavy rains have made the terrain treacherously slippery, and some trails are so water-logged that the search teams have had to abandon their vehicles to search on foot. Fog and rain are preventing helicopters from helping in the search.
PMT Air is a small Cambodia airline that began flights from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville in January, a new domestic route launched by the government to spur the country's burgeoning tourism industry.
Sar Sareth, the airline's director, said his company acquired the missing plane about two years ago from the now-defunct Royal Phnom Penh Airways.
Sar Sareth said he did not know what year the plane was built but that it was in "good condition" before taking off from Siem Reap.