Cargo plane crashes into part of Congo’s capital, at least 25 killed



By Eddy Isango

KINSHASA, Congo – A cargo plane crashed in a residential neighborhood near the airport in Congo’s capital on Thursday, plowing into homes and killing at least 25 people, officials said.

Several destroyed houses near a market in Kinshasa’s Kingasani neighborhood were ablaze, and smoke filled the sky, according to an Associated Press reporter on the scene.

The An-26 crashed about 10:30 a.m. into a market area of the neighborhood three miles from the airport, said civil aviation chief Alphonse Ilunga.

U.N. peacekeeping spokesman Michel Bonnardeau said 25 people aboard the plane were killed and two survived – a mechanic and a flight attendant who was in critical condition.

The plane’s flight manifest indicated there were 16 people aboard, but more had boarded before takeoff, Ilunga said. He said the plane had just taken off from the airport en route to central Congo when it crashed. It was not immediately known what caused the plane to go down.

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“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. “There was a huge explosion.”

It was not immediately clear if there were fatalities on the ground. U.N.-funded Radio Okapi cited witnesses in the area as saying the plane damaged 10 houses on three streets.

Laurent Kongolo said he and several other people pulled a woman from the burning wreckage of one of the homes. “She was between life and death,” he said. “It was horrible.”

There appeared to be little left of the plane. Two detached wheels sat on top of a house, a twisted propeller stuck out of the earth, and charred strips of the plane’s fuselage lay on the ground covered by debris and broken concrete blocks.

Friends and relatives of the victims wailed and cried at the site.

Cargo planes in Congo are frequently flown by experienced pilots from former Soviet states but the aircraft are often old, ill-maintained and overcrowded.

Russia’s ITAR-Tass news agency reported that the plane, which belonged to Congolese carrier Africa 1, had a Russian crew. The five-year-old Congolese company is one of a host of African airlines banned from flying in the European Union because of safety concerns.

In August, the government suspended the licenses of a number of private local airlines and suspended the national director of civil aviation after an An-12 carrying 3 tons over the recommended capacity crashed in the eastern region of Katanga, killing 14 people.

Some local airline companies operating in Congo flew during back-to-back wars that lasted from 1996 to 2002, when regulations and government controls in the region were even weaker than today.

In 1996, an An-32 turboprop crashed seconds after takeoff from Kinshasa’s main airport, skidding across a busy street and plowing into a crowded open-air market. The crash killed at least 300 people, one of the worst air accidents in Congo’s history.

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 for transportation.