At Least 25 Dead In Congo Plane Crash

In a thunderous blast, a cargo plane slammed into three homes in Congo's capital seconds after takeoff Thursday, killing at least 25 people and cutting a path of destruction through a poor neighborhood.

The crash underscored the dangers of flying in Congo, which has experienced more fatal air crashes than any other African country since 1945, according to the Aviation Safety Network. The turboprop belonged to the Congolese company, Africa One, which had been barred from flying in the European Union because of safety concerns.

It was not immediately known what caused the Antonov 26 to go down.

Citing police reports, U.N. peacekeeping spokesman Michel Bonnardeaux said 25 people were killed and two survived - a mechanic and a flight attendant who was in critical condition. It was not immediately clear if all 25 people had been on board the plane. Transport Minister Remy Kuseyo said at least three people on the ground died.

The Congolese Red Cross said it extracted 22 dead from the area, and transported 22 wounded to the hospital. Police said that amid the wreckage, it was difficult to determine who had been aboard the plane and who was not.

Three Russians were among the dead: the pilot, co-pilot and a flight engineer, Russia's Foreign Ministry said. One of the plane's propellers broke off during takeoff, and one of its wings was sheared off as it hit a bank of trees, the ministry said.

That account was echoed by several witnesses at the scene, who said the aircraft appeared to be missing a propeller before it crashed.

"The plane clipped several treetops and hit the roofs of three houses, crashing onto its back with its tires in the air," said Japhet Kiwa, who lives in the impoverished neighborhood of Kingasani, a few kilometers (miles) away from Kinshasa's Ndili International Airport. "There was a huge explosion."

The blast set palm trees ablaze and completely tore apart three single-story homes set between two dirt roads. Little was left, except two detached wheels on the roof of a house, ripped strips of the plane's riveted exterior, and what appeared to be part of an engine. A large bent propeller stuck out of the earth, surrounded by gray concrete blocks, trash, ripped clothes and debris.

Smoke filled the sky for hours as firefighters struggled to douse the flames amid a chaotic crowd of shouting onlookers, including wailing friends and relatives of the victims.

Red Cross workers scampered among the debris, hauling unrecognizable charred corpses out of the rubble in blue plastic sacks, which were loaded into ambulances and taken to a hospital in Kinshasa.

Laurent Kongolo said he and several other people pulled a woman, burned head to toe, out of the burning wreckage of one of the homes that had been hit. "She was between life and death," he said. "It was horrible."

U.N.-funded Radio Okapi said the aircraft was headed to Tshikapa in the central province of Kasai Occidental.

Civil aviation chief Alphonse Ilunga said the plane's flight manifest indicated 16 people aboard, but an unknown number of others boarded before takeoff - a common occurrence in Congo, where years of war that ended in 2002 have led to countless crashes.

Cargo planes in Congo are often flown by experienced pilots from former Soviet states, but the aircraft are often old and poorly-maintained. Most of the accidents have been blamed on lax safety regulations and repeatedly overloaded aircraft.

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.

An Associated Press survey of air accidents in Congo from 1996 until Thursday found 20 fatal crashes.

The government has tried grounding airlines, with little impact.

In August, the government suspended the licenses of a number of private local airlines and suspended the national director of civil aviation after an Antonov 12 carrying three tons over the recommended capacity crashed in the eastern region of Katanga, killing 14 people.

In September 2005, the government briefly grounded 33 airlines, pulling their operating licenses following an earlier rash of plane accidents in the Central African country.

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

"The problem with Congo is that because of conflict over a long period of time there has been limited government oversight over the operation of airlines," said Elijah Chingosho, technical and training director of the Kenya-based African Airlines Association.