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Indonesia resumes search for missing airliner

Rescuers launched new searches for a missing plane with 102 people aboard after initial reports that its wreckage had been found, turned out to be false.

india Updated: Jan 03, 2007 12:03 IST

Indonesian rescuers launched new sea, land and air searches on Wednesday for a missing plane with 102 people aboard after initial reports that its wreckage had been found turned out to be false.

Senior government officials have apologised for erroneously saying the 17-year-old Boeing 737-400, operated by budget carrier Adam Air, had been spotted in the mountains of Indonesia's eastern Sulawesi island after disappearing in heavy rain.

Transport Minister Hatta Radjasa also denied reports 12 people had survived.

After a day filled with confusing information, rescuers resumed the search using military planes in areas around the western coast of rugged Sulawesi island, where the plane gave out distress signals before all communication was lost on Monday.

The search began at daybreak amid heavy rain and strong winds and was coordinated from Makassar, Sulawesi's largest city, 1,400 km east of Jakarta.

Minister Radjasa told reporters navy ships have also been sent to the Makassar Strait between Sulawesi and Borneo islands to cover possibilities the plane fell into water.

"Our major obstacle is the weather which is quite a significant problem," he said, adding the planes would use an airport on Borneo as a temporary base as heavy rains have been drenching Makassar.

An Indonesian air force official said the planes' coverage were in areas between the Sulawesi coastal town of Majene and Toraja, a mountainous region popular with tourists.

However, much of it is covered with jungle and forest, and transportation and communication facilities can be poor at best.

The plane was carrying 96 passengers and six crews. A copy of its manifest showed three passengers as non-Indonesians.

The United States embassy in Jakarta said they were Americans. Officials said the mistaken information about survivors and the plane being found came from reports from a local village that police then relayed to government agencies.

The confusion over the missing plane highlighted the logistical difficulties of dealing with disasters from earthquakes and volcanoes to landslides, floods and forest fires in an archipelago of 17,000 islands that stretches about as wide as the United States.

Relatives of passengers anxiously awaiting news in Makassar reacted with shock and dismay to the apologetic explanations.

Sopiana de Fretes, 49, related to an army official on the plane, said: "Since I got here, the news has been conflicting. It's like we don't get the news that we are supposed to get."

The plane lost contact with the ground on Monday about an hour before it was due to land in Manado in North Sulawesi.

The plane went missing just two days after a ferry carrying more than 600 people sank in bad weather off the main island of Java.

At least 200 were saved and rescuers were still finding survivors this week, but some 400 were still unaccounted for.

Transport officials have insisted the Boeing was airworthy and had no record of trouble.

The transport ministry said it had last evaluated the plane in December 2005, when it had passed all service checks.

The aircraft was due to be checked again in late January.

The Boeing had 45,371 flying hours and, according to Adam Air, was powered by General Electric CFM56-3C1 engines.

Joseph Umar Hadi, a member of the Indonesian parliament's transport commission from the opposition camp, said officials should be held accountable for the mix-up.

Annual checks on planes operated by budget carriers are "very insufficient", he added.

"Crude competition among operators has created risks unknown by the public, whether it relates to maintenance or management that encourages thrift," said the legislator from the Indonesian Democratic Party Struggle.

Air travel in Indonesia, home to 220 million people, has grown substantially since the liberalisation of the airline industry after the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, which enabled privately owned budget airlines to operate.

First Published: Jan 03, 2007 11:57 IST