160 die in plane crash after possible engine trouble

EARLY indications suggest the plane that crashed in Venezuela, killing all 160 people on board, may have experienced engine trouble.

The West Caribbean Airways plane was headed from Panama to Martinique when its pilot reported trouble with both engines to the Caracas air control tower just after 7am (3am local time), said Francisco Paz, president of the National Aviation Institute.

Airport authorities lost radio contact with the plane roughly 10 minutes later in the area of Machiques, 400 miles west of Caracas in the western border state of Zulia, he said. Interior Minister Jesse Chacon said military helicopters and planes flying over the area indicated “it’s very unlikely there could be survivors”.

The airline, in a statement from Colombia, said 152 passengers, including a small child, and eight Colombian crew members were aboard the McDonnell Douglas MD82. The passengers were all French citizens from Martinique, who were on an organised vacation to Panama, said Christian Edmond-Mariette, an official at the mayor’s office in Fort-de-France, the Martinique regional capital.

The airline said the pilot reported an emergency 20 miles from the Colombia-Venezuela border.

Authorities said the plane requested permission to attempt an emergency landing at the nearby airport in Maracaibo, Venezuela, but never made it.

It went down in a wooded area between two farms.

Residents in the area were reported saying that they heard an explosion.

French Transport Minister Dominique Perben said the airline had operated a charter between Panama and Martiqinue since spring.

The plane had been checked twice since May by French aviation authorities, who found nothing unusual, he said.

French President Jacques Chirac expressed his “strong emotion” as he learned of the “appalling catastrophe” and offered condolences to families of victims “in the name of all French”.

He sent Overseas Minister Francois Baroin to Martinique and ordered a crisis centre opened at the Foreign Ministry.

The US sent five investigators to Venezuela to help.

West Caribbean Airways, a Colombian airline, began service in 1998. In March, a twin-engine plane it operated crashed during take-off from the Colombian island of Old Providence, killing eight people and injuring the other six passengers.

Two other crashes in Venezuela in the past year both involved military planes. In December, a military plane crashed in a mountainous area near Caracas, killing all 16 people on board. In August 2004, a military plane crashed into a mountain in central Venezuela, killing 25 people.

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