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163 survive as plane crashes and burns

ALL 163 passengers and crew on board a Russian-built airliner survived after it crashed in dense fog, flipped over and caught fire at New Delhi airport before dawn yesterday. Indian rescue workers described the astonishing escape from death as 'providential'.

Madhavrao Scindia, Civil Aviation Minister, who had brought in Russian-made planes to break a strike by pilots, said he was 'deeply anguished' by the crash and submitted his resignation. He was jeered by passengers at the airport when he visited the wreckage.

The passengers and crew were saved, according to officials at New Delhi airport, because the emergency doors on the Tu-154 aircraft were flung open by the impact of the crash.

Passengers quoted by Indian news agencies said the airliner, on a flight from Hyderabad, landed in 'a most unusual' manner. Hampered by poor visibility, the pilot, an Uzbek who was relatively unfamiliar with the airport, thudded the left wheels down on the runway, and was unable to stabilise the aircraft. It skidded, flipped over, broke into three pieces, and caught fire.

A passenger named Vinod, who was travelling with his wife and child, described the scene immediately after the crash. 'The plane was full of smoke and even the ground outside was on fire. Luckily, we located a patch of ground that was not burning and jumped,' he said.

Jasbir Singh, another passenger who had been sitting in the front of the plane, said: 'We were facing 100 per cent death. The only thing we were thinking of was the mode of death. But incredibly, we were able to just walk out.' Once safely outside the plane, the passengers cried and hugged each other.

Their joy swiftly turned to anger as they waited for ambulances and rescue teams to come speeding through the fog to help evacuate the crashed airliner. No help came for 30 minutes, some of them said. Only six passengers were taken to hospital with injuries.

Mr Scindia was responsible for leasing several Russian-made Tu- 154s from Uzbek Airlines, in an attempt to break a month-long strike by Indian Airlines pilots at the height of the tourist season.

The Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, has yet to accept his resignation. Tipped by many as a future leader of the ruling Congress Party, Mr Scindia is a cricket enthusiast who has arranged the England team's itinerary across India.

All Russian-made planes leased by Indian Airlines were grounded immediately after the accident. Captain Suresh Kumar, leader of the striking pilots, said that the airline management had ignored safety warnings about the Russian-built airliners.

Several days ago, according to Indian Airlines, the same pilot narrowly avoided colliding with an Indian air force jet when he mistakenly tried to land his airliner at a military base in Madras.

In Bombay, the death toll rose to 90 as Hindu-Muslim fighting continued for a fourth day yesterday, spreading to new areas. Rioters fought gun battles with police and extra troops were rushed in.

At least 20 died yesterday, including seven Muslim militants shot dead by police commandos in a rooftop gun battle in the city centre, witnesses said. Rioters pelted fire engines with stones and petrol bombs to try to stop them putting out scores of fires.

A curfew was imposed on 12 mixed neighbourhoods. The Defence Minister, Sharad Pawar, ordered 'appropriate and ruthless action' to restore order.

The city had yet to recover from religious clashes last month following the destruction of a mosque by Hindu zealots in the northern town of Ayodhya.

(Photograph omitted)