Airliner Crashes in Congo At Takeoff, Killing Dozens

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 16, 2008

LUBUMBASHI, Congo, April 15 -- A Congolese passenger jet attempting to take off from Goma, an eastern provincial capital, crashed Tuesday into a crowded neighborhood of concrete houses and outdoor markets, broke into pieces and caught fire, killing dozens.

Thirty-three people were killed and 80 injured in the crash of the DC-9, government spokesman Esdras Kambale said on national television, according to Reuters. A marketing official with the airline, Hewa Bora, told the news service that most of those killed were on the ground, in the Birere market district.

Officials with the airline were under police protection after an angry mob tried to attack them.

"They sought police protection because there was a demonstration of hostility," said Kemal Saiki, a spokesman for the U.N. mission here. "There was an expression of frustration."

Because the local government has little emergency equipment, rescue efforts were mostly up to U.N. personnel. The United Nations has a heavy presence in eastern Congo, an area of rolling green hills thick with banana trees, where there has been fighting among various militias for years.

Saiki said the U.N. firefighting mission was hampered by a massive crowd gathered around the broken plane. The crowd dispersed only after Congolese police fired warning shots into the air.

Hewa Bora marketing director Dirk Cramers told Reuters that the pilot attempted to abort his takeoff but that the plane, with 79 people aboard, skidded through standing water on the runway and crashed through a wall about 2 p.m.

The jet slammed into several houses and a market area crowded with people buying and selling cooking oil, vegetables, mattresses and other basics.

Congo, a country of about 900,000 square miles, has less than 2,000 miles of paved roads, so many towns and cities are accessible only by air.

At the same time, Congo's airlines are among the world's worst, with mostly Soviet-era jets and poorly trained pilots, under notoriously corrupt regulatory authorities, according to transportation specialists and various studies.

Congo has had more fatal crashes since 1945 than any other African country. Last year there were 10 aviation crashes in Congo, seven of them fatal, according to the independent Aviation Safety Network.

Until recently, only one Congolese jet was allowed to land in Europe under a special arrangement with the European Commission. This month, even that plane was banned. Now all Congolese airlines are on a commission blacklist of carriers banned from operations in the European Union.

Special correspondent Caleb Kabanda in Goma contributed to this report.

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