160 killed in Chinese air disaster

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ALL of the 160 passengers and crew were killed when a Chinese aircraft crashed on an internal flight yesterday, making the accident the worst in the country's civil aviation history.

The Russian-built Tupolev-154 of China Northwest Airlines crashed eight minutes after it took off from Xian for Canton in rainy weather. There were 10 foreigners listed on the passenger manifest, including a child, but their nationalities were not known last night.

China is notoriously slow in providing casualty details after air accidents and last night there was still no official confirmation of the death toll, nor of reports that the aircraft broke up in the air.

Over the past two years, China's state-owned domestic airlines have suffered a spate of crashes, hijackings, and near-accidents, and this year the Civil Aviation and Administration Corporation (CAAC) had been working hard to improve safety practices.

By an unfortunate coincidence, yesterday's official China Daily boasted of an increase of about 20 per cent in passenger and cargo air traffic in the first five months of the year. It quoted Yan Zhixiang, CAAC's deputy director, as attributing the achievement 'to the effective measure taken against plane accidents, air piracy and improved services'. The newpaper said 'rigid safety codes' had been carried out among air crews, plane mechanics, air traffic controllers and airport guards.

In reality, China's booming economy has left its domestic airline system overloaded and under-resourced. In 1992 and 1993 more than 400 people died in reported civil air accidents. The International Airline Passengers Association said this year China was one of the most dangerous places to take domestic flights.