More than 150 French tourists die in Venezuela's worst air crash

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The Independent Online

A Colombian aircraft has crashed in Venezuela, killing all 160 people on board, most of them French citizens from Martinique. The aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas MD-82 belonging to West Caribbean Airways, was en route from Panama City to the Caribbean island of Martinique, an overseas département of France.

The accident ­ the worst in Venezuela's history ­ was the second major air disaster in three days, following the Cypriot airliner that crashed in Greece.

The eight crew were Colombians. All 152 passengers were believed to be holidaymakers from Martinique returning from a package holiday in Panama City.

The French President Jacques Chirac ordered the creation of an international crisis room at the foreign ministry in Paris and dispatched François Baroin, the minister for overseas territories, to Martinique.

M. Chirac said he was "deeply shocked" by the crash and expressed "on behalf of all the people of France, my deepest condolences and great sorrow to the families and friends of the victims".

Anguished relatives of victims began to gather at the Lamentin international airport in Martinique yesterday morning as news of the disaster spread. Many seemed to be unaware that the plane had crashed without survivors.

Most, if not all, of the 152 passengers had booked a holiday with the Globe Trotters company in the town of Rivière Salée in Martinique. Many of the victims were thought to live in or near the town but a list of passengers was not immediately published.

Venezuelan authorities said the pilot first reported engine trouble at 3.07am local time yesterday. The interior minister, Jesse Chacon, said the pilot requested permission for an emergency landing at La Chinita airport in the city of Maracaibo. Shortly after, the second engine failed, and contact was lost at about 3.15am.

The plane "began to descend at a rate of 7,000ft a minute", Mr Chacon said.

The aircraft, flight WC707, crashed in wooded fields belonging to a cattle ranch called La Cucharita, near the town of Machiques in the border state of Zulia. The ranch is located at the foot of the heavily-forested Perija mountains. Local residents told reporters they had heard a loud explosion some time before 4am.

The area is frequented by both leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries from neighbouring Colombia, as well as by drug traffickers. There were no indications that the disaster was the result of an attack.

Venezuelan civil defence authorities and the fire brigade reported finding no survivors. By midday, rescue workers had recovered 56 bodies. Recovery operations were hampered by the terrain and bad weather, but authorities managed to find one of the aircraft's two black box flight data recorders.

French Transport Minister Dominique Perben said the plane was inspected recently and no problems were noted. However, a spokesman for West Caribbean Airways admitted the plane had dropped its tail cone last month during a flight but was later repaired. It was the second crash involving a West Caribbean Airways plane this year.