Plane with Korean, Czech tourists aboard crashes in Cambodia

Monday, June 25, 2007

An Antonov AN-24.
Kampot Province is highlighted on a map of Cambodia.

An airliner carrying 22 people crashed into a remote mountainous area of Cambodia today, and the fate of those aboard remained uncertain as search teams were daunted by darkness and rugged terrain.

Radar contact with the PMTair Antonov An-24 was lost at around 10:40 a.m. local time (0340 GMT). The flight had departed at around 10 a.m. from Angkor International Airport in Siem Reap, near the popular Angkor Wat temple complex, and was heading to Sihanoukville International Airport at Sihanoukville, a beach resort town on the Gulf of Thailand.

A report by Kyodo News said local villagers heard a loud explosion, rushed to the crash site, and found no survivors.

Cambodian officials have not confirmed or denied the report, and said they were still searching for the wreckage.

"We don't know how many are dead or how many survived," Him Sarun, chief of cabinet of the Civil Aviation Secretariat was quoted as saying by Agence France-Presse (AFP).

By nightfall, emergency workers said they had not yet located the crash site. "It could have crashed into the side of a hill. It could be anywhere. This is difficult country," an unnamed rescue worker was quoted as saying by Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA).

An unnamed airport official told Reuters that the plane had crashed into a mountain in Kampot Province, about 150 kilometers (93 miles) from the capital, Phnom Penh. "We heard there was something wrong with the plane at Kom Chhay mountain in Kampot," the official was quoted as saying.

Earlier in the day, Royal Cambodian Armed Forces dispatched helicopters to search for the crash site, but visibility was poor because of rain.

Deputy provincial police chief In Chiva told AFP that some conservationists working in the mountainous jungle near Kampot's Bokor Hill Station had seen the plane crash. "The area is heavily forested and the sky is dark [with rain] so it is hard for us to search. We have not found any pieces of the plane yet," he was quoted saying by AFP.

The search is centered in Chhuk district, about 40 kilometers (24 miles) north of the provincial capital, Kampot governor Thach Khorn told DPA. "We are having serious difficulties reaching the wreck," he was quoted as saying. "We can do no more to get to the site by road tonight. However, we are doing everything we can to reach the area as soon as possible," Khorn added.

The flight had 16 passengers – 13 South Koreans and three Czechs, plus a flight crew of one Russian and five Cambodians.

PMTair is a small Cambodian airline with domestic and international routes, including direct flights from Seoul to Siem Reap, feeding a large influx of tourists from South Korea in the past few years. The airline had begun regularly scheduled Siem Reap-Sihanoukville flights in January, providing a direct link between the two popular tourist towns.

"We cannot find the plane right now, so we cannot say anything," an unnamed PMT official was quoted saying by AFP.

The airline's website lists its current fleet as having two jets, a Boeing 737-200 and a McDonnell Douglas MD-83, and four prop-driven planes: two each of the Russian-made Antonov AN-24s and AN-12s.

The airline has a checkered safety reputation. In 2005, a piece of landing gear snapped off an aging Antonov AN-24 on landing at Banlung, Ratanakiri, with 59 passengers aboard. There were no injuries, but the airline was temporarily grounded after the incident.