PAPEETE, France (Reuters) - A passenger aircraft plunged into the sea in French Polynesia on Thursday, killing at least 14 people, with another six still missing at nightfall when a search was suspended, French authorities in Papeete said.
An Air Moorea aircraft with 19 passengers and a pilot on board came down after taking off from the island of Moorea on a 7-minute hop to the local capital Papeete.
Police said 14 bodies had been recovered including that of the pilot but no survivors had been found. Television reports said 16 bodies had been recovered.
All those on board were French apart from two Australians.
The search was to resume in the morning but authorities held little hope of finding any of the missing alive.
The plane, a DeHavilland Twin Otter aircraft, veered to the right after take-off for the main island of Tahiti and crashed into the ocean at around 12:15 pm local time (6:15 p.m. EDT) on Thursday.
“I watched the airplane depart. At 500 feet in the air, and following the 30 seconds in the air, the craft suddenly crashed,” helicopter technician Temorere Marlon told Polynesian television.
“It fell at a very fast speed. I was sure that something was definitely wrong,” he said.
Moorea is one of around 118 islands scattered across an area the size of Europe in the South Pacific that make up France’s overseas territory of French Polynesia.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement he was “profoundly saddened” by the accident and offered his sympathy to the families of the victims.
Aviation authorities said weather conditions were clear and the head of Air Moorea, Christian Vernaudon said the pilot had not signaled any problem.
An unidentified fisherman who was nearby told French television that it was immediately apparent that there was little hope of finding survivors.
“We didn’t try to understand, we were just there, we took maybe 30 seconds to get there. We just saw a whole lot of debris on the surface and bodies as well.”
Authorities in Papeete said the victims included two European officials posted to the region, who local media said had been visiting a water purification plant.
Additional reporting by Rob Taylor in Canberra and Gwenaelle Barzic in Paris
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