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Passenger jet inferno kills dozens in Sudan

A jetliner veered off a runway and burst into flames in Sudan's capital, killing at least 29 people, officials and witnesses said on Wednesday.
Image:  Sudan Airways plane crash
Rescuers examine the wreckage of a Sudan Airways jet that burst into flames after landing at Khartoum Airport on Tuesday.Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / Reuters
/ Source: news services

A jetliner veered off a runway and burst into flames in Sudan's capital, killing at least 29 people, officials and witnesses said on Wednesday.

Investigators were trying to determine what caused the inferno as the Sudan Airways flight landed in Khartoum from Amman and Damascus on Tuesday night.

At least 29 people were killed inside the burning plane, while 171 managed to escape, Sudan Civil Aviation Authority spokesman Abdel Hafez Abdel Rahim Mahmoud said Wednesday. He added that 14 still remained unaccounted for.

Many passengers fleeing the scene did not pass through customs, making the toll initially difficult to ascertain.

Police spokesman Maj. Gen. Mohammed Abdel Majid al-Tayeb told the official SUNA news agency that the plane skidded off the runaway and rammed into the light poles used by pilots to navigate when landing in bad weather, sparking a fire on the right side of the aircraft.

The nationalities of the dead were not immediately known but diplomats who have examined the manifest said that almost all the names appear to be Arabic. Airport officials said they thought the vast majority were Sudanese.

'Rough' landing
The roaring blaze dwarfed the Airbus A310's shattered fuselage as firefighters sprayed water, Sudanese TV footage showed. Ambulances and firetrucks rushed to the scene, and media were kept away.

A survivor speaking at the airport to Sudanese TV said the landing was "rough," and there was a sharp impact several minutes later.

"The right wing was on fire," said the passenger, who did not give his name. He said smoke got into the cockpit and some people started opening the emergency exits. Soon, fire engulfed the plane, he said.

"As we landed, the engine burst into flame — I was sitting right next to it," said passenger Kamal Eddin Mohammed, to the pan-Arab satellite news channel Al-Jazeera. "It was horror inside the plane."

The cause of the accident wasn't immediately known and there were differing reports on the role weather played.

A dust storm and heavy rain hit the airport on Tuesday and the plane was initially diverted to Port Sudan on the Red Sea.

Sudan's Minister of State for Transport, Mabrouk Mubarak Salim, said there was an explosion in the airliner's right wing engine area. "So far we don't have precise information but we think the weather is a main reason for what happened," he said.

Another survivor, Al Haj Bashir, said the landing in Khartoum was "not normal" and that there was "an explosion in the right wing" two or three minutes after the plane landed.

Counting survivors
At its height the fire appeared to be consuming the fuselage and cockpit area. The emergency crews eventually managed to extinguish the blaze.

Television pictures showed emergency escape chutes at the side of the blazing aircraft and ambulances on the tarmac.

A spokesman for Sudan's civil aviation authorities said all but one of the crew had been found alive.

"The task of counting the survivors has been complicated because in the alarm and confusion they dispersed and some of them seem to have left the airport area," said the spokesman.

"Whether (the fire was due to) a technical reason we don't know yet," airport director Yusuf Ibrahim told Sudanese TV.

"The plane was coming from Amman and Syria ... It landed safely at Khartoum airport and they talked to the control tower which told them where to taxi. At this moment an explosion happened," he said.

Sudan has a poor aviation safety record. In May, a plane crash in a remote area of southern Sudan killed 24 people, including key members of the southern Sudanese government.

In July 2003, a Sudan Airways Boeing 737 en route from Port Sudan to Khartoum crashed soon after takeoff, killing all 115 people on board.

After that crash, Sudanese officials blamed sanctions for restricting vital aircraft parts. The U.S. State Department said there was no ban on equipment needed for aviation safety.

In 1997, then President Clinton issued an executive order barring the export of goods and technology to Sudan because of the country's "support for international terrorism, ongoing efforts to destabilize neighboring governments, and the prevalence of human rights violations.

The Airbus A310 is a twin-engine, widebody plane used by a number of carriers around the world. Typically configured with about 220 seats, it is a shorter version of the popular A300.