Seven tourists die in plane crash

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MAUN: A dark cloud descended on the country's tourism industry as seven European tourists and their pilot died when a 15-seater Moremi Air Charters caravan aircraft caught fire after a failed take-off in the Okavango Delta on Friday.

According to the press release from the Civil Aviation Authority of Botswana (CAAB) released on Friday, there were 11 passengers on board but the records show that there were actually 12 passengers.

The Cessna 208 caravan aircraft registered a2-AKD crashed soon after taking off and caught fire at Xakanaka airstrip on its way to Pom Pom in the delta. Six tourists and the pilot were burnt beyond recognition, while another tourist who apparently tried to escape by jumping from the aircraft mid air died at the Maun airport after suffering severe injuries. Letsholathebe Hospital superintendent, Dr Maxwell Mungisi, said the bodies of the deceased - four Swedish, two British, and two French nationals - were burned beyond recognition. He said only DNA tests can identify the deceased. He said the bodies are currently in the hospital mortuary awaiting forensic examinations.

Their respective embassies in Gaborone have been notified.Among the four survivors, two were a French couple who were airlifted to Milpark hospital in Johannesburg on Friday night, after a brief treatment at Delta Private Hospital in Maun. The man sustained burns while his wife escaped unhurt. They are reportedly in stable condition in South Africa. Two officials of the Department of Road Transport and Safety (DRTS), who were the only Batswana on board, also survived.

Meanwhile, the chief executive officer of Moremi Air Charters, Sue Smart, revealed that they have temporarily grounded their fleet pending investigations into the accident. She said their pilot also died in the crash.

"The pilot was also killed. He was the company's general manager, our most seasoned pilot with over 12,000 hours of flying," she wrote in a media statement.

Maun police could not shed information on the crash. Maun Police Station commander, Robert Masibi, directed The Monitor's enquiries to the public relations officer of CAAB, Chris Nkwe.

The Monitor understands that the aircraft which left Kasane on Friday morning carrying European tourists to the camps in the Okavango had stopped in Xakanaka. It was scheduled for another stop in Pom Pom before proceeding to Maun.

At the time of going to press, investigators from CAAB, the Botswana Police Service and the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) had flown to the crash site.

According to one of the survivors, Bernard Lottering, a vehicle examiner who had flown with his colleague to examine vehicles owned by Moremi Air in the Delta camps, the aircraft went down soon after take off. Interviewed by The Monitor from his hospital bed a few hours after the crash on Friday, he said after the aircraft hit the ground he kicked out the window and managed to escape. Once outside, he managed to pull out his colleague and two other passengers, apparently the French couple who survived, to safety. The aircraft had already caught fire.

The rescue team that flew to the crash site on Friday reportedly found the aircraft still ablaze. Burnt bodies hung out of the aircraft windows after failed attempts to escape.  Given the bad terrain of roads in the camps fire engines could not go to the site. The rescuers apparently ferried water from the delta to put out the fire before transporting the bodies to Maun.

There are fears that the incident may harm the country's tourism industry. The tourist fatalities happened as the search for South African tourist, John Bullen, who is feared dead after going missing in the Chobe National Park three weeks ago, is still on. According to media reports there are fears he might have been burned to death or gorged by wild animals.

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