Plane crash kills 16 people off the Italian coast

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The Independent Online

Up to 16 people were reported dead last night after a Tunisian passenger plane crashed into the sea off the coast of Sicily.

The Tunisair flight, with a total of 39 people on board, crash landed into the Mediterranean Sea around 12 miles off the Italian island, after reporting a technical fault to Palermo airport.

There were conflicting accounts of the death toll, with Palermo prosecutor Piero Grasso reporting that there were at least 16 dead from the accident. All 39 passengers and crew were apparently accounted for. Of the survivors, nine were said to be in a serious condition. Mr Grasso was quick to rule out any terrorist involvement in the crash.

The plane had been en route from the southern Italian town of Bari to the Tunisian resort island of Djerba when the fault was discovered, but had failed to complete an emergency landing in Sicily, officials said. Shortly after the crash, survivors were in the sea, clinging to the plane's wings.

"The plane had engine problems and was trying to land in Palermo but had to land in the sea," said Nicoletta Tommessile, a spokeswoman for ENAV, Italy's air-safety agency.

Ms Tommessile said the plane's crew had contacted Rome airport tower officials shortly after 3pm local time to say they had a problem and would have to land at Palermo airport. Then 16 minutes later they got in touch with Rome again to warn: "We're ditching in the sea." The plane, a twin-turboprop ATR-72, was operated by Tuninter, an affiliate of Tunisair.

Officials at Bari airport said most of the passengers aboard were young Italian tourists. By late afternoon, the survivors had been brought ashore at Palermo, many with bloody faces and ripped clothes, some yelling in pain. The port was reported to be full of ambulances with helicopters buzzing overhead.

Tunisian officials said all of the passengers were Italian, with television reports claiming most of them were from Puglia, the "heel" of the Italian peninsula.

Giovanni Saccone, a Palermo fire official, said that when rescuers arrived, the Tuninter ATR-72 was still floating, but the tail broke off hours after the impact and fire department divers were trying to keep the wreckage afloat.

"The aeroplane was controlled until it made contact with the water," ENAV spokesman Adalberto Pellegrino told SKY TG24.

"It is definitely a very serious incident," Vito Riggio, head of civil aviation authority ENAC told Italian television. "They asked to land at Punta Raisi [Palermo's airport], but they didn't make it. The pilot said he would try a sea landing but was unable to."