Yemeni plane crashes off Comoros, girl found alive

MORONI Tue Jun 30, 2009 6:49pm EDT

1 of 19. Relatives and friends of passengers of Airbus A310-300 flight from Yemen arrive at a crisis center at Charles de Gaulle airport near Paris, June 30, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes

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MORONI (Reuters) - An Airbus A310-300 from Yemen with 153 people on board, including 66 French nationals, crashed into the sea off the Indian Ocean archipelago of Comoros as it approached in bad weather early on Tuesday, officials said.

A 14-year-old girl was found alive in the sea, Comoros Communications Minister Abdourahim Said Bakar said. Earlier reports had said the rescued child was five.

The Paris airports authority said 66 French nationals were aboard the plane, which was flying the final leg of a trip from Paris and Marseille to Comoros via Yemen.

A Yemeni aviation official said there were also nationals from Canada, Comoros, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Morocco, the Palestinian territories, the Philippines and Yemen on the plane.

It is the second Airbus to plunge into the sea this month. An Air France Airbus A330-200 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean killing 228 people on board on June 1. A preliminary report on that crash is due on Thursday.

The Paris-Marseille-Yemen leg of the Yemenia flight was flown by an Airbus A330. In Sanaa, those passengers who were flying on to the Comoros changed onto a second Yemenia plane, the A310 that crashed.

FAULTS DETECTED

French Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau said faults had been detected during inspections in France in 2007 on the Yemenia A310, and that it had not flown to France since.

"The A310 in question was inspected in 2007 by the DGAC (French transport authorities) and they noticed a certain number of faults," he told the I-tele television channel.

"The company was not on the black list but was subject to stricter checks on our part, and was due to be interviewed shortly by the European Union's safety committee."

"The question we are asking ... is whether you can collect people in a normal way on French territory and then put them in a plane that does not ensure their security. We do not want this to happen again," he said.

Yemen's transport minister said the plane was thoroughly checked in May under Airbus supervision.

"It was a comprehensive inspection carried out in Yemen ... with experts from Airbus," Khaled Ibrahim al-Wazeer told Reuters from Sanaa. "It was in line with international standards."

The EU suspended permission for Yemenia to maintain EU-registered planes in February after it failed a set of audit inspections, the EU's aviation safety agency told Reuters in Brussels.

The move would not have affected the doomed Airbus A310 plane since it was registered in Yemen. But it provides further evidence of European concerns over the airline's operations after the EU Commission said the plane which crashed had sparked an EU inquiry two years ago.

The EU's Transport Commissioner Antonio Tajani said it would contact Yemenia and planned to propose a global blacklist of airlines deemed unsafe.

Yemenia is 51 percent owned by Yemen and 49 percent by Saudi Arabia. Its fleet includes two Airbus 330-200s, four Airbus 310-300s and four Boeing 737-800s, according to its website.

French television showed pictures of friends and relatives of the passengers weeping at Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport, many of them railing at the airline.

Families arriving at the airport in Marseille, where there is a large Comoran community, were met by Comoros consul Stephane Salord.

"The Comorans save up for several months in the year to go to Comoros with their families. In this plane there were entire families, parents, children, elders who were with them."

AIRBUS INVESTIGATORS

Ibrahim Abdourazak, an official at a crisis center in Comoros, told Reuters the 14-year-old girl was from a village in the center of the Indian Ocean archipelago.

Earlier, a doctor in the Comoros had told Reuters a five-year old child had been plucked alive from the sea and taken to a medical center.

Airbus said it was dispatching a team of investigators to the Comoros. It said the aircraft was built in 1990 and had been used by Yemenia since 1999. Its engines were built by Pratt and Whitney, a unit of United Technologies.

A Yemenia official said there were 142 passengers including three infants, and 11 crew. The plane was flying to Moroni, capital of Grande Comore, the main island of the archipelago.

"The weather conditions were rough; strong wind and high seas. The wind speed recorded on land at the airport was 61 kph (38 mph). There could be other factors," Mohammad al-Sumairi, deputy general manager for Yemenia operations, told Reuters.

The French military sent army and civilian medical teams, boats and divers to the crash site aboard the plane from the Indian Ocean island of Reunion. Comoros authorities sent small speedboats.

France and the Comoros have enjoyed close ties since the islands' independence in 1975. France estimates 200,000 people from Comoros live in mainland France, and remittances from France are an important part of the islands' economy.

For a map showing the flight path of the airliner, go to:

http:/graphics.thomsonreuters.com/RNGS/JUN/CRASH.jpg

(Additional reporting by Richard Lough in Antananarivo, Inal Ersan in Dubai, David Clarke in Nairobi, Pascal Lietout, Anna Willard, Thierry Leveque and Guy Kerivel in Paris, Jean-Francois Rosnoblet in Marseille; Writing by David Clarke; Editing by Richard Balmforth)