PAKSE, Laos (AFP) - Rescuers have recovered the bodies of more than half of the victims of Laos's worst known air disaster, officials said Friday, as families began to hold funerals for the dead.
All those on board died when the Lao Airlines turboprop ATR-72 plunged into the Mekong River in stormy weather on Wednesday near Pakse airport in Champasak province.
More than half of the 49 passengers and crew were foreigners from 10 countries.
Volunteers searched the river on boats of all sizes, mustered for the grim task of plucking the dead from the turbulent waters - in some cases many miles from the crash site.
Souksamone Phommasone said he was devastated as he prepared to cremate his wife, who died along with her mother and father as they returned in the ill-fated aircraft from a visit to see the couple's daughter in Vientiane.
"I am very sorry because this is the loss of my family, my father and mother-in-law. This is the biggest loss in my life," the 48-year-old businessman told AFP.
His wife's body, lying in a simple white coffin in a temple decorated with flowers and family photographs, is one of the few to be released after being identified. The bodies of his parents-in-law were still being autopsied, he said.
Other funerals were being prepared in the temple on Friday.
Thai officials at a crisis centre said at least 26 bodies have been found so far.
"We have not found the remains of the plane. It is believed that many of the passengers' bodies are stuck inside," said Russ Jalichandra, a Thai consul to Laos.
At the riverbank local people said prayers, laying flowers and burning incense near where the plane is thought to have dived into the water.
The aircraft sank to the bottom of the river and rescuers said recovering the wreckage would be an extremely difficult task, complicated by raging currents.
Soubinh Keophet, a former national footballer and volunteer with a Laos rescue foundation, said one body was discovered as far as 30 kilometres (19 miles) from the crash site.
"We travelled 50 kilometres (31 miles) along the river and found four bodies," he said, after he pulled a recently discovered limb from the water.
"Although they know the location of the crash, they still can't find the main body of the plane because it has broken up into small parts and spread everywhere and the current is very strong," he added.
Sommad Pholsena, Laos minister of public works and transport, told reporters that 17 bodies had been found so far.
A large Laos naval vessel, several smaller Thai and Laos rescue boats, dinghies and a jet ski were seen on the waters on Friday.
Thai Transport Minister Chatchat Sitthipan said near the scene that the rescue operation was being led by local authorities with the support of the Thai navy, airforce and volunteer rescue teams.
The flight from the capital Vientiane was carrying 44 passengers and five crew, including 28 foreigners.
Rows of wooden coffins were seen at a mortuary in Pakse, which is a hub for tourists travelling to more remote areas in southern Laos.
Lao Airlines said the aircraft hit "extreme" bad weather while witnesses described seeing the plane buffeted by strong winds caused by tropical storm Nari.
According to an updated passenger list from the airline, there were 16 Laotians, seven French travellers, six Australians, five Thais, three South Koreans, three Vietnamese, and one national each from the US, Malaysia, China and Taiwan.
Australia said a family of four was among its nationals feared dead.
The pilot was a Cambodian national said to have "many years" of flying experience.
French-Italian aircraft manufacturer ATR said the twin-engine turboprop aircraft was new and had been delivered in March.
Witnesses recounted seeing the plane in trouble before it came down.
"I heard a boom! A sound like a bomb going off. There was smoke and flames before it crashed," local village chief Buasorn Kornthong, 37, told AFP.
Founded in 1976, Lao Airlines serves domestic airports and destinations in China, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Impoverished Laos, a one-party communist state, has seen 29 fatal air accidents since the 1950s, according to the Aviation Safety Network.
Previously its worst air disaster was in 1954 when 47 people died in an Air Vietnam crash near Pakse, the organisation said.