Search continues for crashed Cambodian plane and 22 aboard

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Passengers disembark from a PMTair Antonov An-24 at Phnom Penh International Airport in September 2006.
Image: Hayden Blackey.
Kampot Province is highlighted on a map of Cambodia.

Monsoon rains in Cambodia hampered the search today for the crash site of a PMTair Antonov An-24, which went down yesterday with 22 people aboard.

"You can't see each other more than 40 metres away," Keo Sivorn, safety chief of the Civil Aviation Secretariat, was quoted by Reuters as saying. "The search teams are facing lots of obstacles. Until this morning, the rain continued to pour and the hills are very slippery as well as densely forested," Keo Sivorn continued.

Thick clouds made visibility poor for the helicopter-borne rescue crews looking for the site. The search is centered in the Dâmrei Mountains of Kampot Province, about 150 kilometers south of the capital, Phnom Penh.

Radar contact with the Russian-made Antonov An-24 was lost at around 10:40 a.m. local time (0340 GMT) yesterday. 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. The plane was about 50 kilometers from its destination when it was lost.

Around 1,000 people are combing the heavily forested mountains, Ly Thuch, deputy director of the National Disaster Committee, told Agence France Presse. "We hope to find them soon. The [rescuers] will search deeper into the forest," Ly Thuch was quoted as saying.

Rescue efforts have been further hindered by uncertainty of the exact location of the crash, with some reports saying the plane had actually gone down in the Sihanoukville municipality, west of Kampot. So far, rescuers have had only vague eyewitness accounts from local villagers, Ly Thuch said.

Prime Minister Hun Sen offered US$5,000 to the person who finds the plane.

"Our hope of finding survivors is slim," he said, according to Reuters. "I am appealing to all, including farmers, who can help us locate the plane, and offering a reward of $5,000 in hard cash."

The flight had 16 passengers – 13 South Koreans and three Czechs, plus a flight crew of a Russian pilot and five Cambodians. The South Korean embassy in Cambodia said all 13 of its citizens were tourists.

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. Last year, around 250,000 South Koreans visited the country. The airline had begun regularly scheduled Siem Reap-Sihanoukville flights in January, providing a direct link between the two popular tourist towns.

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, overcrowded with 59 passengers aboard. There were no injuries, but the airline was temporarily grounded after the incident. In another incident, a plane had to return to the airport after takeoff because of engine failure.

Yesterday's crash is Cambodia's first major aviation accident in nearly ten years. In September 1997, a Vietnam Airlines Tupolev Tu-134 crashed while trying to land in heavy rain at Phnom Penh International Airport, killing 65 of 66 people aboard. The sole survivor was a toddler.