At Least 79 Killed After Plane Crashes In Eastern Congo

GOMA, Congo (AP) -- A plane crashed Tuesday into a crowded neighborhood in eastern Congo, and at least 79 people were believed to have died, government officials said. There were six known survivors.

It was not immediately clear how many people may have been killed on the ground in the Central African nation when the DC-9 plane faltered shortly after takeoff, said Julien Mpaluku, the governor of the province.

"We have already picked up many bodies - dozens of bodies," Mpaluku said. "There are a lot of flames which makes it difficult to know if the bodies we are picking up are those of passengers of the plane or else passers-by or people that lived in the area where the plane crashed."

Smoke engulfed the charred ruins of the aircraft, which appeared to have broken in two when it slammed into the rooftops of about 10 cement homes just outside the airport, destroying them instantly.

Soldiers kept onlookers away after U.N. peacekeepers helped douse flames at the crash site.

Employees at the Goma headquarters of World Vision said they saw the plane plow through houses and shops in the highly populated market area.

"Smoke was rising from the plane," said Christian Kilundu, a spokesman for the Goma office of the international aid group. "As fire extinguishers were trying to put out the flames, I spoke to a priest who had been pulled from the wreckage. He was disoriented and had no idea what had happened," he said.

One of the pilots also survived the crash, Mpaluku said.

The plane plummeted into the market neighborhood of Birere, located just beyond the runway, the governor said. The runway used to continue into the neighborhood, but was partially blocked by lava from a 2001 volcanic eruption in Goma, a town located 700 miles east of the capital, Kinshasa.

The plane was owned by Hewa Bora, a private airline based in the country, Mpaluku said. It was headed to Kinshasa, Congo's capital, said Gauthier Iloko, the second-in-command at the Goma airport.

Just last Friday, the European Union added Hewa Bora Airways to its blacklist of airlines banned from flying in the EU without specifying a reason.

On Tuesday, European Union spokesman Michele Cercone said she had no information on Hewa Bora specifically but she said that all airlines based in Congo are banned from EU air space.

"That is because there is a general lack of effective control by the civil aviation authorities there to monitor and maintain minimum technical standards" for airplanes, Cercone said.

One of the worst air accidents in Congo's history occurred in 1996, when an Antonov 32 turboprop crashed seconds after takeoff from Kinshasa's airport, plowing into a crowded open-air market and killing about 300 people.

Few passable roads traverse Congo after decades of war and corrupt rule, forcing the country's deeply impoverished people to rely on boats and planes to move around.


Associated Press writers Eddy Isango in Kinshasa, Congo and Robert Wielaard in Brussels, Belgium contributed to this report.

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