Congo rescue called off after air crash kills 50

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KINSHASA, Oct 6 (Reuters) Rescue workers in Congo called off a search for survivors today two days after a Russian-made cargo plane plunged into a suburb of the capital Kinshasa, killing at least 50 people.

Government officials said a number of people were still missing after the Antonov 26 twin-propeller aircraft belonging to Congolese airline Africa One crashed into houses in the Kingasani neighbourhood shortly after take-off on Thursday.

''There's nothing left. There's just the carcass of the plane and some debris,'' said Dominique Lutula, President of the Congolese Red Cross, which has been leading rescue efforts.

''What else can we do? It's over now. The volunteers have gone home,'' he told Reuters.

The Humanitarian Affairs Ministry raised its provisional death toll from the accident to at least 50 from 38 yesterday and said this could rise further. At least 25 people were badly injured and at least seven are reported missing.

Congolese authorities are still investigating the cause of the accident, in which only one of around 18 people on board survived -- a Congolese mechanic who is recovering in hospital.

''It's the civil aviation authority that's carrying out the investigation. They've told me they'll perhaps analyse the black box on Monday,'' Information Minister Toussaint Tshilombo said.

Witnesses at the airport said the aging aircraft never gained altitude after takeoff.

''I was making tea. I'd just put the cup on the table, when I looked out the window and saw a cargo plane moving fast and very low,'' Gaylor Mesompamba told Reuters from Kinshasa's General Hospital, where he was being treated for extensive burns.

The impact of the crash levelled his house and he said he did not know what had happened to the rest of his family.

''There were four of us. The others were in the bedroom. I had to climb out through the ceiling and over a wall,'' he said.

Congo has one of the world's worst aviation safety records and Thursday's disaster was the latest and most deadly of a series of recent accidents.

Before Thursday's catastrophe at least 30 people had already been killed this year in six plane crashes in the former Belgian colony, a vast nation the size of Western Europe with only a few 100 kilometre (miles) of paved roads.

In 1996, at least 350 people died when a Russian-built Antonov-32 cargo plane ploughed through a crowded market in Kinshasa, the country's worst air disaster.

President Joseph Kabila sacked his transport minister yesterday as the cabinet met to discuss ways of toughening air safety regulations, including improved inspection and harsher penalties for offenders.

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 PY RK2106

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