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Cubans probe plane crash that killed 68

world Updated: Nov 06, 2010 13:54 IST

AFP
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Cuban investigators on Saturday probed the country's worst plane crash in two decades, in which all 68 people on board, including 28 foreigners, had been killed.

On Friday, the investigators found the "black box" voice and data recorders of the Cuban airliner that crashed in central Cuba on Thursday, 400 kilometers (250 miles) east of Havana.

Police used a bulldozer to clear vegetation from the debris of the domestic Aerocaribbean aircraft, which crashed in the mountainous Sancti Spiritus region after the pilot reported an emergency.

"We saw it when it already had problems and was flying low," Miguel Garcia, a 68-year-old farmer who lives close to the crash site, told AFP. "There was a great commotion, people gathered and screamed... and then boom, an explosion."

Eliseo Lopez, a 31-year-old local construction worker, was one of several witnesses who said he saw smoke coming from one of the aircraft's engines as "the plane spun around in the sky."

The first rescuers to get to the crash site overnight found the wreckage burning.

The plane, a twin turbo-propeller ATR-72-212 built by French-Italian manufacturer Avions de Transport Regional, was heading to Havana after departing the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba when the crash occurred.

It had taken off in dangerous weather conditions.

But Cuba's Civil Aeronautics Institute did not immediately say whether foul weather was a factor in the crash.

"At the moment, aviation and regional authorities are gathering the facts and details and have created a commission to investigate such a regrettable accident," it said in a statement.

"There was no bad weather here. We've yet to find, for example, part of the plane's rear rudder," said Diaz.

Tomas, then a tropical storm that later strengthened to a category one hurricane, had already begun to drench eastern Cuba with rain and a warning was issued to aircraft in Santiago de Cuba province before the plane took off.

Cubana Airlines, another state carrier, decided to cancel all flights in and out of Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo the same day because of the alert.

But locals who rushed to help at the crash site stressed that the weather was good in their region at the moment the plane came down.

Among the passengers were eight Europeans, two Australians, nine Argentines, seven Mexicans, a Venezuelan and a Japanese national, state media reported.

The Europeans included three Dutch, two Germans and one each from France, Italy and Spain.

The Austrian embassy said two Australians killed in the crash were initially mistakenly reported as Austrians, and Buenos Aires said the Italian was an Argentine citizen.

There were 40 Cubans on board, including the seven crew.

According to officials, the pilot radioed an "emergency situation" before losing contact.

Many of the foreigners on board the doomed flight were believed to be tourists. Tourism is the main foreign exchange earner in Cuba, bringing in some two billion dollars annually.

It was the Communist-ruled island's worst air disaster in 21 years.

The last passenger plane crash in Cuba occurred in March 2002, when a small Antonov-2 went down in the central province of Villa Clara, killing all 16 people -- 12 foreign tourists and four Cuban crew -- on board.

The deadliest accident in recent decades occurred in September 1989, when a Soviet-era Ilyushin IL-62 bound for Milan crashed shortly after takeoff from Havana, killing all 115 passengers, 113 of them Italian tourists, as well as several crew members and another 40 people on the ground.