250 die as plane hits market

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Kinshasa - A Zairean cargo plane crashed into a crowded market in the centre of the Zaire capital yesterday, killing 250 people, rescuers said.

The plane, a Russian-built Antonov-32, ploughed through the market for about 100 metres, scattering wreckage, before coming to a halt belching flames and black smoke. Firefighters from the nearby Ndolo airport, where the plane took off, tried to dampen the flames.

"We found 217 bodies," said Vincent Nicod of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). "I think there are 32 more bodies at hospital morgues. So I don't think there are less than 250 people in all." Most of the victims were women and children.

Four Russian crew members from the plane survived the crash, and an attempt by an angry crowd to lynch them at a clinic where they were treated for minor injuries. Zaire's state prosecutor, Mukenge Bisumbule, said police took the Russians into custody "for their own safety", and were looking for two other crew members - a Ukrainian and a Zairean.

Red Cross workers with blood-stained stretchers joined soldiers and local volunteers at the market. Carrying plastic bags, they picked up the mutilated bodies, tears streaming down their faces - in part from the acrid smoke which still poured from the crash-site, but also from the sheer horror of the scene. A child's head lay severed on a sheet of corrugated iron.

The dead were lined up in two rows, covered in blankets. Wailing women stood by. Others lifted up the blankets in search of friends or relatives.

"The aircraft tried to take off but it only got a few metres off the ground, then it disappeared and there was an explosion," said Gothie Mukoka, who was at the airfield when the plane took off. A Zairean air force colonel who was also at the airport said the aircraft appeared to be overloaded. The airport has been closed until further notice, but sources said the plane belonged to a private Zairean firm, African Air.

Last month, a Lockheed Electra passenger plane owned by another private Zaire firm crashed in Angola, killing 141 people. Zaire's transport minister said that he believed the Lockheed was overloaded.