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Hijacked Ethiopian Plane Crashes in Comoros Islands

November 24, 1996

MORONI, Comoros Islands (AP) _ A hijacked Ethiopian airliner carrying 175 people ran out of fuel and crashed Saturday on the Comoros Islands, killing at least 55 people. Island residents risked the rough, shark-infested waters of the Indian Ocean to search for survivors.

At least 30 people survived the Ethiopian Airlines crash on the island nation off Mozambique in east Africa, the state-run Ethiopian News Agency reported.

The Italian embassy confirmed 55 people dead and at least 16 injured. Witness reports put the death toll much higher _ as many as 100.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Christopher Bush told The Associated Press that there were ``several American citizens″ aboard.

Rescue efforts were hindered by rough seas, the risk of shark attacks and nightfall.

The Boeing 767 crashed around midday near the Galawa Beach Hotel, 25 miles north of Moroni, the Comoros capital on the main island of Grande Comore.

``There was a loud noise as it hit the water. Witnesses say that it was flying very low over the water and one wing touched into the water and then the plane crashed,″ hotel receptionist Natalie Bier told The AP.

``Straight after that everybody was running and we were getting the boats out, going to try and rescue any survivors we could.″

Bier said most of the survivors they found were critically injured.

``We also recovered a lot of people who didn’t make it, who died on the boat or at the beach,″ Bier said.

Eleven hijackers commandeered Flight 961 shortly after it took off from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Abbaba, the Ethiopian News Agency reported.

They demanded the pilot take them to Australia, but didn’t believe him when he said there wasn’t enough fuel, the agency reported. The plane got as far as Moroni and tried for a crash landing.

The motive of the hijacking wasn’t immediately clear.

Galawa hotel manager Bruce Thomson said survivors told him two hijackers with bombs were on the plane and a third was apparently in the hold. The explosives were never detonated, the passengers said, and the plane ran out of fuel while the pilot negotiated with the hijackers.

The plane’s wreckage was in three pieces spread across 200 yards on shore and in the water.

Thomson said a military driver went into the central fuselage in the early evening. ``He estimated 60 to 80 passengers will still strapped in their chairs and had drowned,″ he said.

The plane was destined for Abidjan in the Ivory Coast after stops in Nairobi, Kenya; Brazzaville, Congo; and Lagos, Nigeria.

The plane was carrying 163 passengers and 12 crew members, Ethiopian Airlines said. It sent a team to Moroni, but will not release a passenger list until Sunday.

The BBC reported from Addis Ababa that air traffic controllers there monitored the hijackers’ frantic demands for 25 minutes. Survivors reported the hijackers were speaking the Ethiopian language Amharic as well as some French and English, the BBC said.

Israel confirmed there were eight Israeli citizens on the flight. Italy identified three Italians on board who survived, including the Italian ambassador to Ethiopia.

Various reports said one of the hijackers was among the survivors.

Abebe Damessa, flight control manager for Ethiopian Airlines in Addis Ababa, said at least 50 people died.

``President Negaso Gidada has expressed his profound grief to those who died in the air disaster,″ Ethiopian radio said.

Ethiopian Airlines offers the most connections within Africa of any African airline. At 50 years old, it is one of the continent’s oldest airlines and until recently had been regarded as one of the best-run in the world. As Ethiopia sank deeper into civil war, the state-owned airline ran into financial problems.

It had three 767s for its long-range routes. Boeing spokesman Brian Ames said the downed plane, a 767-200ER, was delivered to the airline around 1986. It was the 187th 767 built.

The plane, a wide-body twin jet, has a 7,660-mile range and can carry 181 passengers in three classes, although Ames said he did not know what cabin configuration Ethiopian uses.

Boeing investigators usually go to a crash scene to assist in an investigation if requested, although Ames said he did not believe the request had yet been made. ``We certainly stand ready to assist in any way we can,″ he said.

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