Wednesday, June 27, 2007

No survivors in Cambodian air crash

No survivors were found today when searchers reached the crash site of PMTair Flight U4 241 in Cambodia, a government minister said.

"All have died. It is confirmed," Information Minister Khieu Kanharith told reporters.

The wreckage of the PMTair Antonov An-24 was spotted by a helicopter crew early this morning, two days after the plane went missing from radar screens while on a flight from Angkor International Airport in Siem Reap to the beach-resort town of Sihanoukville.

The crash site is located in the Dâmrei Mountains, or Elephant Mountains, northeast of Bokor Hill Station in Kampot Province, about 150 kilometers south of Phnom Penh, the capital.

Rescue helicopter pilot Tep Sitha, speaking to Reuters by mobile telephone, described the crash site as "high on the mountain."

A search operation involving around 1,000 people had scoured the mountainous jungle territory since the plane crashed on Monday. Monsoon rains, thick jungle and rugged terrain had hampered the search.

The 44-seat plane had 22 people aboard – 16 passengers, plus a flight crew of six – a Russian pilot, two Cambodian co-pilots, a Cambodian flight engineer and two Cambodian flight attendants. Among the passengers, 13 were from South Korea and three were from the Czech Republic.

Around a dozen Korean family members arrived in Phnom Penh yesterday from Seoul, and the Cambodian government said it would pay for their accommodations.

The cause of the crash is yet to be determined by an examination of the flight data recorder, but officials had earlier speculated that weather may have played a part.

The airline, PMTair, is a small Cambodian carrier that listed its fleet at five planes, including two Antonov An-24s, which it used for domestic flights. The type of Soviet-built plane, introduced in 1963, is common in Cambodia's civil and military aviation fleet.

Sar Sareth, director of PMTair, told the Associated Press yesterday that he did not know what year the crashed plane was built. He said it was in "good condition" before taking off, and "was always in compliance with flight technical and safety procedures."

The airline had begun regularly scheduled Siem Reap-Sihanoukville flights in January, providing a direct link between the two popular tourist towns.

In addition to domestic service, PMTair has international routes, including direct flights from Seoul to Siem Reap, feeding a large influx of tourists from South Korea in the past few years. Last year, around 250,000 South Koreans visited the country.

Yesterday, a South Korean government agency said it was putting PMTair on a list of carriers it was checking for safety. "As PMT also does business at Incheon International Airport, a special safety inspection for the airline will be carried out until July 6," Chung Sang-ho, head of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, was quoted as saying by Yonhap News Agency.

One other Cambodian carrier, Royal Khmer Airlines, was also on the South Korean list, as was Garuda Indonesia, and three Russian carriers, SAT Airlines, Vladivostok Air and Dalavia.

Before Monday's crash, the worst incident for PMTair was a hard landing in 2005, when a piece of landing gear snapped off an An-24 on landing at Banlung, Ratanakiri, overcrowded with 59 passengers aboard. There were no injuries, but the airline was temporarily grounded after the incident. In another incident, a plane had to return to the airport after takeoff because of engine failure.

The crash is Cambodia's first major aviation accident in nearly 10 years. In September 1997, a Vietnam Airlines Tupolev Tu-134 crashed while trying to land in heavy rain at Phnom Penh International Airport, killing 65 people and one person, a toddler, surviving.

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