Searchers comb dense Cameroon forest for Kenya plane


  • World
  • Sunday, 06 May 2007

By Tansa Musa

YAOUNDE (Reuters) - Hi-tech helicopters and villagers on motorbikes combed thick tropical forest in southern Cameroon on Sunday for a Kenya Airways passenger plane which crashed after takeoff in the central African country, officials said. 

The Boeing 737-800 aircraft, which was carrying 114 people from more than 20 countries, went missing on Saturday after leaving Douala for Nairobi in torrential rain. 

A worker at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi watches news on the missing Kenya airways flight in Cameroon May 5, 2007. Helicopters and villagers on motorbikes combed thick tropical forest in southern Cameroon on Sunday for the plane which crashed after takeoff in the central African country, officials said. (REUTERS/Antony Njuguna)

Cameroon's state radio interrupted broadcasts to report the plane had been found near Mvengue, southwest of the capital Yaounde, only to say later it could not confirm the report. 

Relatives of those on board have turned up at airports and Kenya Airways offices in Douala and Nairobi seeking information. 

"I still have hope because, so far, we don't know what happened to the plane. It could have crash-landed and there are people there waiting to be rescued. That is what is giving us hope," Bernard Kadurenge, brother of missing flight attendant Cyprian Kadurenge, told Reuters in Nairobi. 

Military helicopters and local people on motorbikes searched a swathe of thick forest, roughly 100 km (62 miles) southwest of the capital Yaounde on Saturday, but found nothing and had to suspend the search overnight due to darkness and heavy rain. 

SEARCH BEEFED UP 

Kenya Airways Group Managing Director Titus Naikuni told a press conference in Nairobi on Sunday the search was resuming with two extra helicopters. He said poor communications in the area were also hampering the search. 

A signal from the plane's emergency locator beacon that had been picked up on Saturday was lost, he said, raising fears the machine's battery may run out. 

"The equipment is only able to transmit information for 48 hours," he said. "The signal is not being received right now." 

A joint French-Cameroonian military team was due to join the search, and officials from plane manufacturer Boeing and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board were due in Cameroon to help investigations, the airline said. 

The United States was providing satellite imagery to help in the search, and Kenyan government spokesman Alfred Mutua said other governments would pitch in. 

A Kenyan search team arrived in Cameroon late on Saturday. 

Radar-equipped helicopters, including one sent by the French military from a base in Gabon, were focusing on an area between three or four towns, a French diplomat in Cameroon said. 

The aircraft, which was only six months old, was carrying 105 passengers and nine crew, the bulk of them African with others from China, India, Europe and elsewhere. The flight originated in Ivory Coast. 

Anthony Mitchell, a British journalist working for the Associated Press in Nairobi, was among the missing, according to Kenya Airways' passenger manifest. 

Kenya Airways has three 737-800s in its fleet and Naikuni said they had not decided whether to ground the others. 

Late on Saturday state television in Cameroon showed hundreds of people gathering sombrely outside the Kenya Airways office in Douala and at the city's airport, many clutching radios or telephones to their ears, and some weeping. 

In the Kenyan capital Nairobi many joined special Sunday prayer services for the missing. 

(Additional reporting by Wangui Kanina and Bryson Hull in Nairobi, and Alistair Thomson in Dakar) 

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