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More Than 60 Die in W. Africa Plane Crash

December 25, 2003

COTONOU, Benin (AP) _ A jetliner carrying Lebanese workers home for the holidays crashed into the sea shortly after takeoff in the West African nation of Benin on Thursday, killing more than 60 people, witnesses said.

As many as 200 passengers and crew were on UTA Flight 141 bound for Beirut from Cotonou, Benin’s capital, when the plane went down at 2:55 p.m., said Jerome Dandjinou, a senior airport security official.

Airport officials in Beirut said 140 people were on the Guinean-owned plane and at least 60 people died. The Dubai-based satellite channel Al Arabiya quoted witnesses as saying that most of the passengers were Lebanese.

There was no word on what caused the crash.

Dozens of bodies floated among the plane’s wreckage about 150 yards off a Cotonou beach. Residents scrambled into the waters to search for survivors and recover the dead.

Benin President Mattieu Kerekou also visited the crash site.

Television images showed bloodied people sitting on a beach and pieces of the plane lying in the surf: shorn-off landing gear, pieces of a wing, the cockpit and the rear part of the fuselage, along with an engine.

Tangled wires and metal hung from the ripped-open fuselage. An injured man held his head, crying.

Airport officials in Beirut said the Boeing 727 had been chartered by two Lebanese men, and most of the passengers were believed to be returning home for the Christmas holidays.

Thousands of Lebanese immigrants live and work in West African countries.

At Beirut airport, the flight was still appearing on the screen, with an arrival time of 11 p.m.

The Lebanese Hezbollah’s Al Manar television quoted a witness at the crash site as saying that the plane had trouble taking off and hit a building at the end of the runway.

``The plane then exploded and crashed into the sea,″ the man said. ``It’s a horrible tragedy beyond imagination,″ he said.

He said the majority of the victims were Lebanese.

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