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Lebanonwire, December 27, 2003

The Daily Star

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Lebanese Army divers recover bodies from UTA plane in Benin
Air disaster kills 113; Libyan pilot among 22 survivors

Lebanese Army divers and African rescuers battled high waves Friday to free bodies from the wreckage of an airliner which crashed into the sea off Benin, killing 113 people, most of them Lebanese expatriates heading home for the holidays.
The 10 army divers had arrived overnight in Cotonou, the African nation’s administrative capital, aboard a Middle Eastern Airlines flight that also carried Lebanese Foreign Minister Jean Obeid and a medical team.
The Boeing 727, operated by the Union des Transports Africains (UTA), a joint Guinean-Lebanese private enterprise, failed to take off and crashed into the sea in a Christmas Day disaster ­ the bloodiest in Lebanon’s civil aviation history.
Of the 156 passengers and seven crew, just 22 people were confirmed to have survived, said Benin’s Transport Minister Hamed Akobi, who revised the injury toll after four victims succumbed to injuries in hospital.
Rescuers combed cold, dark waters Friday in a desperate search for survivors.
The Beirut-bound flight clipped a building at the end of the runway, exploded and smashed into the Atlantic Ocean on Thursday afternoon.
Throughout the night, rescuers toiled with steel cords and a tractor to try to lift large sections of the plane’s wreckage from the shallow waters, while police used belts to beat back thousands of onlookers thronging the beach.
With spotlights perched on the beach and flashlights in hand, divers and fishermen searched for survivors through the night, swimming through scattered pieces of luggage, clothes and gift-wrapped presents. Tractors tied chains to parts of the wreckage, including an engine, in an effort to clear away the wreckage.
The bulk of the destroyed aircraft still lay in the water, some 100 meters from the beach, 24 hours after the crash.
Before dawn, about 50 Lebanese nationals gathered along the shore, crowding around bodies ­ pulled from the water one by one ­ to identify friends or relatives. Looters sifted through some of the debris, pocketing cell phones and cash.
“This is all too much for me to handle,” said one Lebanese man, Akim Toufik.
“As soon as we took off, I saw the whole plane crumple and people were pushed toward me by the pressure of the crash,” said Khodor Farhat, who was sitting at the back of the plane.
“Then I woke up in the water. I pushed myself to the surface and swam to the beach where some men pulled me out and took me to hospital,” he said from his hospital bed.
Rescue efforts were halted temporarily after daylight because of high seas, which complicated the work of navy divers.
Police began an inquiry into why the airliner crashed.
Airport officials said the plane had difficulty retracting its undercarriage after takeoff.
The flight originated in Conakry, Guinea, and picked up passengers in the Sierra Leone capital Freetown and Cotonou before setting off for Beirut.
Lebanese communities form the backbone of some economies in West Africa, running small shops and businesses in many nations.
Lebanon’s top Shiite cleric urged worshippers in Beirut on Friday to pray for the dead and injured.
“We are facing a tragedy that struck Lebanon in an air disaster that claimed dozens of our sons and loved ones in Africa, and whose country was not able to guarantee them job opportunities,” said Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah.
Thursday’s crash is the third this year in Africa in which planes have plunged to the ground shortly after takeoff.
Benin’s chief of army staff, Fernard Amoussou, said one of the plane’s two black boxes was found. It was not immediately known whether it contained flight data or cockpit voice recordings.
The Lebanese-owned carrier, registered in Guinea, has run a weekly flight ­ with multiple stops ­ between Beirut and Cotonou for nearly two months, hoping to capitalize on the large Lebanese population that has put down roots in West Africa.
Antoine Chaghoury, the brother of Lebanon’s honorary consul to Benin, said Thursday that 99 percent of those onboard were Lebanese.
The plane’s captain, a Libyan national, was among the living.
The carrier had been denied a license to register in Lebanon because it did not fulfill “technical requirements,” Lebanese Transport Minister Najib Mikati said in Beirut.
The crash struck t Lebanon’s Shiite community to the core, one of the main sources of emigrants to west Africa.
On Friday, preachers at the mosques called for “compassion and solidarity with our brothers during these trying times.”
Hundreds of anguished Lebanese continued their overnight vigil on the beachfront in Cotonou. In Conakry, where the flight originated, families wandered the airport in a tear-stained haze, awaiting news of their loved ones that was not forthcoming.
And in southern Lebanon’s Kharayeb village, families who had prepared to welcome their loved ones were now planning funeral tributes.
“My brother called me from Cotonou, from the beach,” said one village native, Mohammed Ali Dor, who lost three cousins in the crash. “He was sobbing and told me: ‘Come see the tatters of the children of Kharayeb floating on the water.’”
A group of men, their gazes vacant, gathered in front of the mosque to listen to Koranic verses imploring the heavens to grant a peaceful final rest to the nine villagers among the scores of passengers confirmed dead in the Christmas Day plane crash.
A 10th native of Kharayeb, who was onboard, had still not been found.
“Kharayeb has around 5,000 inhabitants, and some 300 of them emigrated to Benin, where they work mainly in the car trade between Germany and Africa,” village official Mohammed Ali Dor told AFP.
“Theirs was an economic success story. You can see the proof in the beautiful villas they had built here on the flanks of the hillsides,” he added with pride.
But his words were tinged with sadness because he himself had lost three cousins in the crash ­ 24-year-old Hiba and her two brothers, aged 23 and 27.
“My cousin Abu Ali Hmoud, who supported my entire family, died in the accident,” said twenty-year-old Aliya Khodr, standing immobile outside her home, clutching a framed photograph of her brother.
“We’ve lost you forever. You never should have left. What good are all those cars, all these riches now that you’re going to come back home in a box?” she moaned.
Kharayeb is not the only southern Lebanese village steeped in grief since the crash. The villages of Qanaweih, Zibdine and Jouaya, home to two of the owners of UTA, are also also in mourning.
Lebanon has suffered only one other civil aviation disaster.
In January 1976, a Boeing 720 of national carrier Middle East Airlines (MEA) crashed on a flight between Beirut, Dubai and Muscat. All 82 passengers and crew, mostly Lebanese, were killed when the plane went down in a desert region near the Saudi-Kuwait border.
At the time, MEA blamed the accident on sabotage, saying “a sudden explosion” had brought down the aircraft.
Investigations confirmed that a bomb had exploded in the luggage hold, bringing down the plane, but the perpetrators of the attack were never identified. ­ Agencies

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