|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 nations
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 Lebanons civil aviation history.
Of the 156 passengers and seven crew, just 22 people were confirmed to have survived, said
Benins 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 planes 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
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
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.
Lebanons 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.
Thursdays crash is the third this year in Africa in which planes have plunged to the
ground shortly after takeoff.
Benins chief of army staff, Fernard Amoussou, said one of the planes two black
boxes was found. It was not immediately known whether it contained flight data or cockpit
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 Lebanons honorary consul to Benin, said Thursday
that 99 percent of those onboard were Lebanese.
The planes 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
The crash struck t Lebanons 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 Lebanons 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.
Weve lost you forever. You never should have left. What good are all those
cars, all these riches now that youre going to come back home in a box? she
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
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