Swiss claim right to investigate oil workers air crash

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The Independent Online

Investigations into the Libyan air crash that killed at least five British oil workers were being hampered yesterday by a row over who should be in charge of the inquiry.

Investigations into the Libyan air crash that killed at least five British oil workers were being hampered yesterday by a row over who should be in charge of the inquiry.

As hopes of finding more survivors of Thursday's crash faded, the Libyans were insisting that international law gave them the right to conduct the inquiry because the aircraft crashed on their territory. But the Swiss said the airline was owned by their nationals and the pilots held Swiss licences. In such severe accidents - at least 17 people died - another country is allowed to take over, they argue.

The Swiss authorities admitted last night they had not even begun their attempt to discover why the aircraft plunged into the Mediterranean because of the row over which country is to take precedence.

Britain also expects to be involved because Britons were among the dead, and the Shorts SD360 aircraft was built in Belfast. Two air crash investigators from the Department of Transport arrived in Libya last night to take part in the inquiry.

The Foreign Office last night named one of the dead as Ronald Jarred of Middlesbrough. It did not name the others, but said they came from Co Durham, Coatbridge near Glasgow, Merseyside and Cheshire.

Rescue services were still searching for five missing passengers, including one Briton, but hopes were fading. Another seven Britons were among 19 survivors picked up from the sea by local fishing boats.

The British ambassador inTripoli, Richard Dalton, said: "It is looking very unlikely that any more survivors will be found." Mr Dalton said the bodies of the five Britons known to have died had been flown to Tripoli and arrangements were being made to return them to families in the UK "as soon as possible".

The twin-propeller aircraft, en route from the capital to the petrochemical refinery at Marsa el Brega, ditched five miles short of its destination. Investigators are likely to focus on whether fuel problems caused apparently simultaneous engine failures. Moments before the crash the pilot reportedly radioed to say he was attempting an emergency landing on water after the engines failed. Both pilots, who each had 1,000 hours' flight time, survived. Salvage workers were preparing to recover the wreckage, which lies under 165 feet of water.

Ahmed Aoun, chairman of state-owned Sirte Oil Company, for which all the passengers were thought to work, said a land and sea search was continuing for the five missing men. "We have not given up. We are searching the sea as well as along the shoreline, in case anyone has reached the shore."

The aircraft was carrying 41 people; two pilots, a cabin attendant and 38 passengers, 13 of whom were British. The aircraft, leased from Swiss air charter firm Avisto AG, was bought new by Avisto in 1990.

One of the Britons who survived, Stewart Bonar, a 59-year-old from Co Derry, telephoned his wife Olive to say he was being treated in hospital for broken bones. Mrs Bonar said he was very upset about the deaths of two friends who were on board. "I asked him how he got out of the plane, but he just said he really didn't want to talk about it," she said.

A friend of the injured man contacted Mrs Bonar to tell her her husband had survived the crash with a broken leg and cuts and bruises.

The escape of Mr Dave Wilkinson, 47, of Hartlepool, was a "miracle", said his brother Alan Wilkinson, 44, also of Hartlepool. Bachelor Dave Wilkinson, who has worked in Libya for eight years as a process operator, was flying back to his job at the huge petrochemical complex. He told his family of his escape in a telephone call.

Noel Guckian, deputy head of mission at the British Embassy in Tripoli, said none of the British survivors was particularly badly injured, and some had returned to their homes in Marsa el Brega.