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Myanmar probes deadly plane crash-landing

Local residents walk past debris from a plane that crash landed the day before near Heho airport in southern Shan state on December 26, 2012. AFP PHOTO / Soe Than WIN

HEHO, Myanmar: Myanmar was on Wednesday investigating the cause of an air accident that left two people dead and 11 injured when a passenger jet packed with foreign tourists crash-landed 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 the country which is emerging from decades of junta rule.

The ageing Fokker 100 jet came down in thick 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 Burmese 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 it appeared to be a case of mistaken identity.

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

"We are still working to find out the cause," Civil Aviation Department deputy director general Win Swe Tun, who is heading the investigation into the crash, told AFP at Heho airport.

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

"Seventy of the 71 people on board survived and one died -- it's very rare," he added.

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 crash-landed.

"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," he said. "It was so lucky. If the emergency exit had not been opened, no one would have survived".

"We helped to send some seriously injured people to hospital. Their skin was burnt because of fire. Foreigners seemed really scared about what happened," he added.

A Swiss survivor, Leandre Guillod, told the BBC from a hospital in Yangon that the plane was flying through cloud shortly before it crashed.

"Suddenly we just hit the ground and then it was all red and orange," the 28-year-old said, adding that a stewardess had opened the emergency exit.

"I was pretty much at the back... there was an opening above the wing, there was lots of fire so me and my girlfriend just jumped because we thought it was better to get out as soon as possible before it might explode," he said.

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

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

"Air Bagan deeply regret the deaths of two persons and tender its condolences to the bereaved families," the airline said in an English-language statement posted on its Facebook page.

"Air Bagan in collaboration with the Ministry of Transport is investigating into the cause of the accident. We will take full responsibility for all passengers and will release further information as we received it."

The airline is one of several domestic carriers seeking to profit from a tourist boom in Myanmar as it 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 US 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.

 

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