Comorians protest, plane crash search resumes

French and United States aircraft joined the hunt on Wednesday for possible survivors from a plane that crashed off the Comoros archipelago, while in Paris expatriate Comorans tried to block another flight by the same airline.

The Yemenia-run Airbus A310-300 went down in the Indian Ocean on Tuesday morning with 153 people on board as it came in to land at Moroni, the Comoran capital. It was flying the final leg of a trip from Paris and Marseille to Comoros via Yemen.

Just one survivor — a 14-year-old Franco-Comoran girl — has been found in the sea. ”Up to now we haven’t found any other survivors, but we haven’t given up hope,” Comoran Vice-President Idi Nadhoim told Reuters by telephone.

As a flotilla of boats took to sea off the main Grande Comore island at first light, angry Comoran expatriates tried to block passengers from checking into another flight from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport to Yemen, the airports authority said.

About 60 people who had been due to take the flight did not check in, though the spokesperson could not say if the protest was the cause or if they had decided not to travel for another reason. About 100 people did check in and the flight took off.

The survivor from the doomed flight, identified as Bakari Bahia, had cuts to her face and a fractured collar-bone. She was picked up during rescue efforts on Tuesday.

”Her health is not in danger. She is very calm given the shock she suffered,” local surgeon Ben Imani told Reuters at Moroni’s El Marouf Hospital.

Sixty-six French nationals were aboard the flight, Paris officials said. Though a full list has not yet been published, a Yemeni official said there were also nationals from Canada, Comoros, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Morocco, the Palestinian territories, the Philippines and Yemen on board.

Comoran officials said France had sent a plane, and was also moving two ships into the area while the US had sent a helicopter to help, and a plane with supplies.

With a population of about 800 000, the formerly French-ruled Comoros archipelago comprises three islands off mainland east Africa and just north-west of Madagascar.

The crashed plane was the second Airbus to plunge into the sea within a month. An Air France Airbus A330-200 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean killing 228 people on board on June 1.

French ban
The Paris-Marseille-Yemen leg of the Yemenia flight was flown by an Airbus A330. In Sana’a, those passengers flying on to the Comoros changed onto a second plane, the A310 that crashed.

French Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau said Paris had banned this specific A310 from its airspace after faults were found in 2007.

Comoran Vice-President Nadhoim, speaking on France 24 television on Wednesday, criticised French authorities for failing to pass on that information to Comoros.

”Bearing in mind that these are planes made by Airbus, a big European company, we would have expected France to pass on to us the list of aircraft banned from flying in Europe,” he said.

But Bussereau warned against quick assumptions. ”The issue is not Airbus, this or that model of plane. When you have an aviation disaster it’s a number of things, sometimes negligence, pilot error or bad weather,” he said on France Inter radio.

Yemen’s transport minister said the plane was thoroughly checked in May under Airbus supervision. ”It was in line with international standards,” Khaled Ibrahim al-Wazeer told Reuters.

Yemenia is 51% owned by Yemen and 49% by Saudi Arabia. Airbus said it was dispatching a team of investigators to the Comoros. It said the aircraft was built in 1990 and had been used by Yemenia since 1999.

A Yemenia official said there were 142 passengers including three infants, and 11 crew, on the plane.

Regional air security body Asecna said French investigators would come to Comoros to launch an inquiry.

Asecna official Ibrahim Kassim in Comoros said the wreckage was thought to lie about 300 to 350 metres below the sea’s surface.

France and the Comoros have enjoyed close ties since the islands’ independence in 1975. France estimates 200 000 people from Comoros live in mainland France, and remittances from France are an important part of the islands’ economy. — Reuters

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