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Angola Grounds Antonov Aircraft

Authorities have ordered all Soviet-built Antonov aircraft grounded indefinitely while investigators examine the causes of two recent fatal crashes involving the planes in Angola, in West Africa.

At least 40 people were killed Wednesday when an Antonov 24 airplane slammed into a field and exploded into a fireball shortly after takeoff.

Angolan National Radio reports that the plane was on fire before it came down on open ground in the district of Golfe on the outskirts of the Angolan capital.

The radio report quotes Transport Minister Andre Luis Brandao as saying that technical failure was the most likely cause of the crash.

Investigators recovered the flight recorders on Thursday and are now examining them for possible clues.

Angola has been embroiled in civil war for years and rebel group UNITA has made a number of claims to have shot down Antonov planes, including the one that crashed earlier this month.

Antonov aircraft were prohibited from flying in the interior of Angola after an Antonov 26 crashed on Oct. 31 in a remote northeastern area, killing 48 people.

However, they were still permitted to fly along the coast. Wednesday's doomed flight was heading from the coastal capital to the southern coastal city of Namibe, about 420 miles away.

A statement by the National Civil Aviation Authority said none of the planes would now be allowed to fly on civilian services. The Angolan Air Force was exempted from the prohibition, but their planes cannot carry civilians.

Officials said dozens of Antonovs are operating in Angola but could not provide an exact figure.

Private companies often charter Antonov planes to carry passengers and cargo across Angola since land mines and skirmishes between the army and UNITA rebel group make road travel unsafe. The prohibition was expected to cause severe disruption to the civilian transport network.

Over the past four years, ten other Antonov planes chartered for military and civilian use have crashed in Angola, killing at least 150 people.

Passenger figures are also sometimes difficult to determine because seats are often given at random on the tarmac, depending on who can pay in cash.

In Wednesday's crash, the flight manifest, the Asas Pesadas charter company's passenger list, and the pilot's report to the control tower all gave different numbers.

Officials said the crew was made up of four Ukrainians and an Angolan. Among the 34 passengers, all believed to be Angolans, was a senior military officer with the rank of colonel.

The Antonov had been on route to the southern coastal town of Namibe where it had been due to pick up members of a Portugese soccer youth team.

Many of the pilots flying Antonov planes in Angola are Russian or Ukrainian. In September, the government announced that some 400 Russian pilots working in Angola would have to pass new flying tests.

The Angolan Association of Pilots welcomed the decision, saying the foreign pilots often are accuseof flying while drunk and failing to ensure proper maintenance of their aircraft.

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