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Myanmar probes rare plane crash

Aging jet may have hit power cable on descent to remote airstrip

AFP-JIJI

Myanmar launched a probe Wednesday into the cause of an air accident that left two people dead and 11 injured when a passenger jet packed with foreign tourists landed short of the runway and caught fire.

The incident raised fresh questions about the safety standards of Myanmar’s fast-growing but overstretched aviation and tourist industries as foreign visitors flock to a country emerging from decades of junta rule.

The aging Fokker-100 jet came down in heavy fog Tuesday in a field short of the runway at Heho Airport, the gateway to the popular tourist destination of Inle Lake, breaking its tail and catching fire, according to officials.

One Myanmar tour guide on board was killed, along with a motorcyclist on the ground. The government earlier said an 11-year-old passenger had died but that appeared to have been a case of mistaken identity.

The airline said the injured included two Americans who were flown to Bangkok for treatment, as well as two Britons, one Korean man and the two pilots.

“We are still working to find out the cause” of the crash, said Win Swe Tun, deputy director general of Myanmar’s Civil Aviation Department. “Seventy of the 71 people on board survived and one died — it’s very rare (in Myanmar).”

He said the plane appeared to have hit a power cable while approaching the runway.

Air Bagan, which described the accident as an “emergency landing,” said it had retrieved the plane’s black box data recorder.

One eyewitness said flames were already spewing from the plane before it crashed.

“We followed the plane as it flew on fire,” said 27-year-old villager Phoe La Pyae. “When we saw the plane, the wing was broken already. If the emergency exit had not been opened, no one would have survived.”

The body of the aircraft was almost entirely burned, while part of a wing was seen lying next to a nearby road, according to witnesses at the scene.

The carrier said 26 passengers were flown to Yangon on a special flight Tuesday and taken to hospital for examination, adding others would follow.

“Air Bagan, in collaboration with the Ministry of Transport, is investigating the cause of the accident. We will take full responsibility for all passengers and will release further information as we receive it,” the airline said in a statement posted on its Facebook page.

The airline is one of several domestic carriers seeking to profit from a tourist boom as Myanmar emerges from decades of military rule. It is owned by tycoon Tay Za, who is known for his close links to the former junta and has been blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury, which once described him as “a notorious regime henchman and arms dealer.”

The Fokker-100, which is no longer manufactured, was one of two operated by the airline, along with four ATR turboprop aircraft, according to the company’s website.

A surge in demand for air travel as Myanmar opens up has stretched the impoverished country’s aviation infrastructure, particularly at remote regional airports.