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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Passenger plane crashes in Cuba, killing more than 100 people

The tragedy left just three survivors

Rescue and search workers on the site where a Cuban airliner with more than 100 passengers on board plummeted into a yuca field just after takeoff from the international airport in Havana, Cuba, Friday, May 18, 2018. (AP)
Rescue and search workers on the site where a Cuban airliner with more than 100 passengers on board plummeted into a yuca field just after takeoff from the international airport in Havana, Cuba, Friday, May 18, 2018. (AP)

More than 100 people were killed in a fiery crash of a Boeing 737 passenger plane in Cuba on Friday, with just three seriously injured survivors in hospital after being pulled from the wreckage, officials and state media said.

The aircraft, on a domestic flight to Holguin in eastern Cuba, crashed shortly after taking off from Havana at 11 a.m. local time. There were either 104 or 105 passengers, including five children, plus nine crew members, various state media said.

Five of the passengers plus the crew were foreign, media reports said. The Mexican government said Mexicans citizens were among the dead, without providing further details.

"We should expect that the news will not be good, as there are a high number of people who appear to have been killed," President Miguel Diaz-Canel said in broadcast comments.

The fire from the crash had been put out and authorities were identifying bodies, the president said. The cause of the crash was not immediately known and Mr Diaz-Canel said authorities were investigating.

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"We heard an explosion and then saw a big cloud of smoke go up," said Gilberto Menendez, who runs a restaurant near the crash site in the agricultural area of Boyeros.

The Boeing 737-201 aircraft was built in 1979 and leased by Cuban airline Cubana from a small Mexican firm called Damojh, according to the Mexican government. That would make it significantly older than most planes in service.

Damojh in Mexico said it did not immediately have any more information. Cubana declined to comment.

Cubana has been the subject of complaints over service and delays in recent months.

Blackened wreckage of Flight CU972 was strewn over the crash site area 20 km (12 miles) south of Havana, a Reuters witness said. Its destination Holguin is the capital of a province that is popular with tourists for its pristine beaches.

Carlos Alberto Martinez, the director of Havana's Calixto Garcia hospital, told Reuters that four victims of the accident had been brought there. One had died and three others, all women, were in a serious condition, he said.

"She is alive but very burnt and swollen," said a distressed relative of one of the survivors at the hospital.

The reason for the plane going down was unclear. "During take-off [the plane] apparently suffered a problem and dived to the ground," the Mexican transport department said on its website.

Most aircraft accidents take months of investigation to explain and are typically caused by a cocktail of different factors, according to aviation experts.

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Boeing Co said in a statement its technical team stood "ready to assist as permitted under US law and at the direction of the US National Transportation Safety Board and Cuban authorities". The United States has a decades-old trade embargo on the island.

Boeing 737 aircraft use engines made by CFM International, the supplier of the world's most-used engines, built by a joint venture of GE and France's Safran.

On Thursday, Cuba's First Vice President Salvador Valdés Mesa had met with Cubana bosses to discuss public complaints about its service, according to state-run media. Problems included the cancellation of numerous domestic flights this year, and long delays which the company said were caused by technical problems with its aircraft.

Earlier this month, the company was ordered to suspend flights by its six Russian built AN-158 aircraft, of which most had reportedly already been grounded.

The last fatal crash in Cuba was in 2017, the Aviation Safety Network said. It was a military flight that killed all eight on board. In 2010, a commercial Aero Caribbean plane crashed in central Cuba. All 68 people on board were killed.

The latest available information on Cuba from UN safety aviation agency ICAO, dating back to 2008, ranks it above the global average, though that preceded the latest three crashes.

A look at some of the major plane crashes in Cuba in recent years:

— April 29, 2017: A Cuban military plane crashes into a hillside in the western province of Artemisa, killing eight troops on board, the government said. The Soviet-made AN-26 took off from the Playa Baracoa airport outside Havana and crashed outside the town of Candelaria about 65 kilometres away.

— November 4, 2010: An AeroCaribbean flight from Santiago to Havana went down in bad weather as it flew over central Cuba, killing all 68 people aboard, including 28 foreigners. It was the country's deadliest air disaster in more than two decades. Cuban aviation authorities later blamed bad weather and pilot error for the crash.

— September 4, 1989: A chartered Cubana plane flying from Havana to Milan, Italy, went down shortly after takeoff, killing all 126 people on board, as well as at least two dozen on the ground.

— October 6, 1976: Cubana flight from Barbados to Jamaica is blown up by bomb, killing 73. The attack is blamed on exiles with ties to US-backed anti-Castro groups. Both of the men accused of masterminding the crime took shelter in Florida, where one, Luis Posada Carriles, lives to this day.