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Libya crash survivor reunites with relatives

Still groggy from surgery, the Dutch boy who was the sole survivor of a Libyan plane crash that killed 103 people greeted an aunt and uncle with a smile.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Relatives broke the news to a Dutch boy who is the sole survivor of a plane crash in Libya that his parents and brother died in the disaster, as authorities said the 9-year-old would return home on Saturday.

Rescuers found Ruben van Assouw still strapped in his seat and breathing in an area of desert sand strewn with the plane's debris. His father, mother and 11-year-old brother are believed to have been among the 103 people on board who were killed Wednesday when their flight from South Africa crashed short of the runway in Tripoli.

Since then, he has been undergoing treatment at a Tripoli hospital, with an aunt and uncle who rushed in from Amsterdam at his bedside.

On Friday, his aunt and uncle released a statement saying they had told the boy of the deaths of his parents, Trudy and Patrick van Assouw, and his brother, Enzo.

"Under the circumstances Ruben is doing well. He sleeps a lot. Now and then he is awake and then he is alert," they said in the statement.

"We told Ruben this morning exactly what happened. He knows his parents and brother are dead. The whole family is going to bear the responsibility for Ruben's future," they said.

"We have two kinds of sorrow to deal with, because Ruben is in a terrible situation, but we have also lost family members," they said, adding for respect for their privacy. "The coming time will be a difficult period for us."

'Progressing quite well'
Dutch Foreign Ministry official Ed Kronenburg said Ruben would be taken home to the Netherlands on Saturday on a Libyan medical evacuation flight.

The child was recovering well after 4 1/2 hours of surgery to repair multiple fractures to his legs.

"He's OK. He's not getting any worse. He's progressing quite well," said orthopedic specialist Sadig Bendala.

The doctor said many factors could have played a role in his stunning survival, including where he was seated in the plane.

"It's something from God, that he wanted him to live longer," Bendala told The Associated Press.

Investigators were gearing up to begin work on determining the cause of the Afriqiyah Airways Airbus 330-200, which hit the ground short of the runway while landing at around 6 a.m. and shattered to pieces. Most of those on board the flight from Johannesburg were Dutch tourists.

Naji Dhou, the head of the Libyan committee investigating the crash, said the pilot "did not declare any problems, as far as we know at this point" during the plane's approach. Dhou declined to comment further, saying the investigation was ongoing.

Deadly plane crash in Libya

Slideshow  7 photos

Deadly plane crash in Libya

At least 100 people are killed when a jetliner crashes as it attempts to land in Tripoli, Libya.

Both black boxes, the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder, were immediately recovered at the crash site and have been sent to Paris, Kronenburg said.

Dutch and French investigators have been mapping the crash site and will begin work looking for clues Saturday, he said. Investigators from the United States, France, South Africa, and the Netherlands are helping Libya with the probe.

Kronenburg expressed some concern about the initial security of the crash site and said care should be taken to ensure that victims' personal items are kept safe so they can be returned to their relatives.

"We had the impression that anyone could have walked over the site," he said.

Identification process begins
Another 20 Dutch forensic experts were arriving in the evening to join a small team already on the ground to begin identifying the bodies, a task that could take a week at least, said Kronenburg.

Relatives of the dead will be asked to provide details of distinguishing marks such as tattoos and scars, along with DNA and medical records to help identify them, said lead Dutch investigator Dann Noort.

Image: Plane crash in Tripoli, Libya
This image from Libyan television shows the flight data recorders from the Afriqiyah's flight 771 found amid the wreckage Wednesday May 12, 2010. The Libyan plane with 104 people on board crashed on landing Wednesday at the airport in the Libyan capital Tripoli and a search and rescue operation was under way, the airlines said. (AP photo/Libyan TV) Libya OUTLibyan TV

"We try to collect information about the victims and try to get DNA, fingerprints and dental records," Noort said, adding that the bodies are being stored in the morgues of two local hospitals. Identification work will take place in Libya, he said. Dutch officials said the bodies would be repatriated individually, as soon as each is identified.

Officials have declined so far to comment on what may have caused the crash. The plane may have been attempting a go-around in poor visibility caused by sunlit haze, safety officials and pilots familiar with the airport said Thursday.

Shards of metal from the plane, the remains of the seats' metal frames and the victims' personal belongings — clothes, books, shoes and souvenirs — blanketed the area. Large chunks of the plane's body were widely scattered across the site.

A National Transportation Safety Board team of investigators from the United States is to arrive Friday since the plane's engines were made by U.S. manufacturer General Electric. The team will include an NTSB engines specialist as well as technical advisers from the Federal Aviation Administration and General Electric.

Postings from dad
Ruben and his family had gone to South Africa during the boys' spring school vacation to celebrate the couple's 12 1/2-year wedding anniversary, a Dutch tradition.

In his travel blog, Patrick van Assouw, wrote about the camping trip that took them through some of the world's most spectacular natural wonders — South Africa's Mac Falls, the Kruger National Park game reserve and across the border into Swaziland and on to Lesotho.

Assouw also wrote that Ruben started out the journey sick, throwing up on the plane trip to South Africa and again in the car at the start of the family's safari.

There was one other mishap — a flat tire in a desolate spot near Sani Pass, which connects South Africa and Lesotho. After changing the tire, the family stood on a remote bluff overlooking a stunning panorama of Lesotho, the father wrote. It was the final day of the safari, May 9.

"Beautiful Mother's Day gift," he wrote.

Ruben suffered four fractures to his legs and lost a lot of blood, Dr. Hameeda al-Saheli, head of the pediatric ward, told the Libyan news agency JANA. But his neck, head and face were not seriously injured, and a large bandage placed on his head after the crash had been removed Thursday.