E Guinea probes deaths in weekend plane crash

Distraught families in Equatorial Guinea were trying on Monday to identify or simply get news of the mostly charred bodies of at least 60 people killed when an overloaded Antonov passenger plane crashed in flames at the weekend.

The Russian-built aircraft, one of many such elderly planes used by private airlines in Africa, was completely destroyed on a domestic flight when it went down in dense jungle on Saturday soon after take-off from the capital, Malabo.

National radio reported that it was “burned and there were no survivors”, while President Teodoro Obiang Nguema said in a broadcast on Sunday there were 60 people on board the 48-seater Antonov-24.

However, an airport official said there may have been about 80 people crowded on to the plane, including students who had bribed their way aboard to cram two-to-a-seat to return from Malabo for holidays in the continental part of the country.

A correspondent for news agency AFP found only one family left among many that had thronged the hospital on getting news of the crash, since others had gone to a cemetery where a mass grave was being dug while coffins containing the remains of the dead had arrived on military vehicles.

The family said only three bodies had been identified at all.

Rescue workers at the crash site, where pieces of plane and bodies were strewn over a wide area, found the Antonov’s two orange “black box” flight recorders but no trace of survivors.

Nobody was able to get to the region for about a day and the damage was so devastating that it is unlikely anybody would ever know for sure just how many people were really on the plane.

At first, the government had said it counted 55 people, while the private airline Ecuatair, which operated it, said its records showed there were 35 passengers and 10 crew.

The black boxes were taken initially to the hospital late on Sunday night, then picked up by men who had arrived in a vehicle dispatched by the president’s office.

“Here we don’t have the necessary means to decode the black boxes, so we’re going to call on foreign experts,” said the chairperson of a crisis committee set up by the government, Second Deputy Prime Minister Richardo Mangue Omaba Nfubea.

Obiang himself said the victims were mostly young people and women. The radio confirmed many were Malabo college students leaving the island of Bioko, where the capital is situated, for home on the Central African mainland.

Crews in the small former Spanish colony are often bribed to carry extra passengers, airport sources said. This happens in a number of other African countries where private companies provide air services, often using ancient planes from Russia or other nations once in the Soviet bloc.

“Our people are going through the worst moments of grief, consternation and sadness ever known in their history,” Obiang declared.

The operator, Ecuatorial Express Airlines, or Ecuatair, is among a handful of companies serving domestic routes and has only one other plane, a Soviet-built Yak-40.

Most such planes, piloted mainly by Russians, Ukrainians and Armenians, no longer meet international flight standards and are banned from landing at airports in other countries in the region.

The funerals would take place on Monday, television said quoting official sources.
A presidential decree said flags would be flown at half-mast during the mourning period.

Obiang called for an inquiry to “take eventual measures that would avoid similar events in future”, and proclaimed a three-day national mourning period.

An eyewitness said on Saturday he saw the aircraft go down shortly after takeoff at 10am local time from Malabo for the city of Bata on the Equatorial Guinea mainland.

The wreckage was not located until eight hours later near the district of Baney.

The plane skidded over trees for a distance of about a kilometre before it crashed, according to aerial photographs, an official statement said on Sunday..

Equatorial Guinea, with a population of just more than one million, is in the midst of an oil boom, and has seen double-digit growth since the mid-1990s.—Sapa-AFP