At least 23 killed as plane crashes in Kinshasa

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KINSHASA, Oct 4 (Reuters) At least 23 people died when a Russian-made cargo plane crashed and exploded today in a teeming neighbourhood of Kinshasa, the capital of Democratic Republic of Congo, officials said.

The ageing Antonov 26 twin-propeller aircraft belonging to Congolese airline Africa One plunged onto houses in the Kingasani district shortly after taking off from nearby Ndjili international airport on an internal flight.

''There were five crew and thirteen passengers on the plane.

Nobody escaped alive: they were all incinerated,'' Transport Minister Remy Henri Kuseyo told Reuters. At least three of the crew were Ukrainian, according to the plane's manifest.

The minister said at least two women and a man were killed on the ground when the plane ploughed into the crowded area and burst into flames.

A Reuters witness also saw one man discover the bodies of two of his children, a boy and girl, crushed by a wall, as distraught relatives poured over the blackened rubble.

With bodies still being recovered and the seriously injured being taken to hospitals across the sprawling riverside capital, the death toll appeared likely to rise.

Information Minister Toussaint Tshilombo said he had seen four residents being treated for third degree burns in the city's General Hospital. Another two infants were in intensive care, he said.

Smouldering debris from the crash was widely scattered over streets and buildings, and some houses were completely flattened. The stench of burning debris and jet fuel filled the air.

Rescue workers pulled at least six charred corpses from the wreckage of the plane as they joined family members picking through the devastation.

An airport security official who arrived quickly at the crash site said fire fighters had initially struggled to reach the wreckage in the shanty town. TV images showed scores of residents helping to carry red fire hoses.

''There's a lot of smoke and flames, everybody in the houses must be dead,'' said the official.

RESCUE TEAM Air travel is notoriously dangerous in Congo. In 1996, at least 350 people died when a Russian-built Antonov-32 cargo plane ploughed through a crowded market in central Kinshasa, in the former Belgian colony's worst air disaster.

Ageing planes in Congo suffer from a lack of maintenance and spare parts but they are often the only way to transport people and goods across the vast central African country that is slowly recovering from a 1998-2003 civil war. Accurate records of passengers and crew are rare.

The Africa One plane's manifest said the aircraft was carrying 14 Congolese passengers and three Ukrainian crew, an airport official said. The plane was en route to the southern city of Tshikapa, in Kasai-Occidental province.

According to the Aviation Safety Network, at least 30 people have already been killed so far this year in six plane crashes in the country the size of West Europe with only a few hundred kilometres (miles) of paved roads.

Congo has one of Africa's worst air safety records and was dubbed an ''embarrassment'' by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) last year.

Africa One is on the European Union's airline blacklist. All airlines certified by Democratic Republic of Congo authorities -- except for Hewa Bora Airways -- are banned from the EU.

REUTERS AM RAI2242

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