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Fake air crash in Kenya sparks brief panic

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NAIROBI, Apr 6 (Reuters) Kenyan authorities sparked brief panic today by telling reporters a plane with 80 people had crashed before announcing the incident was an emergency drill.

Fire engines and ambulances roared to the staged crash site, guarded by soldiers and police, as an army helicopter whirred over the dummy light aircraft lying on its side in a field with its cockpit smashed.

Many viewed the response as a rare display of efficiency by emergency services in Kenya, where road crash victims are often taken to hospital by good Samaritans and firefighters are known to arrive at blazes with no water, or too late to help.

''Everybody knows if you call the police they do not come,'' said a Nairobi souvenir shop owner, who declined to be named, said. ''You're at the mercy of God.'' As first reports came in of an accident close to Nairobi's international airport, Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) officials told reporters a plane coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo had just crashed and was burning close to the airport.

On repeated questioning, they gave flight and engine numbers, and spoke of smoke and chaos.

Asked why KAA would pretend that there was a real crash, spokesman Dominic Kabiru said: ''We are testing our preparedness.

We have to play a real scenario.'' Government spokesman Alfred Mutua defended todday's exercise and said even airport officials were kept in the dark.

''When the building collapsed, we found the systems were not actually performing,'' he told a weekly news conference.

''Today's drill is to make sure systems are in place to test the people, including the media.'' But some Kenyans said today's rapid response bore little resemblance to their real-life experience.

In a country where carjackings and armed robberies are everyday affairs, those who can afford it employ private security guards rather than rely on ill-equipped and poorly paid police.

The flimsiness of the country's emergency services was highlighted in January, when authorities were forced to appeal to private companies for heavy machinery to lift mounds of debris from a collapsed building that killed 14 people.

Later, British, American and Israeli experts were brought in to help the overwhelmed Kenyan rescuers.

Restaurant manager Francis Muriithi, however, said emergency services had improved after two al Qaeda-linked attacks on the east African country destroyed the U.S. embassy in 1998 and an Israeli-owned hotel in 2002, killing more than 200 people.

''Before, you called the police -- their vehicles were there but there was no fuel -- but things are changing. The government is more aware after the bomb blasts,'' Muriithi said.

REUTERS OM VC1917

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