'Dozens dead' in Laos plane crash

BANGKOK - A Lao Airlines plane carrying at least 44 people, about half of them foreigners, plunged into the Mekong River in southern Laos on Wednesday in bad weather killing everybody on board, officials said.

Seven French citizens, six Australians and five Thais were among those thought to have died when the turboprop ATR-72 came down around eight kilometres (five miles) from Pakse airport in Champasak province.

Citizens from some 10 countries were reported to have been on the flight from the capital Vientiane.

"I can now confirm, according to our reports, that all 44 people on board have died, including five Thai," Thai foreign ministry spokesman Sek Wannamethee told AFP.

He said there were 39 passengers and five crew on board.

The state-run Laos news agency KPL also said everyone on board was believed to have perished.

"The plane was about to land but appeared to be hit by a strong wind, causing its head to ascend and pushing it away from the airport area and out of reach of the air traffic control radar," it quoted a witness as saying.

State-owned Lao Airlines said the aircraft hit "extreme" bad weather and had crashed into the Mekong.

"There were no news of survivors at this time," it said, giving a slightly different figure of 44 passengers and five crew. It did not confirm the number of deaths.

France said it was rushing embassy officials to the site of the crash in Pakse, which is a hub for tourists travelling to more remote areas in southern Laos.

French President Francois Hollande learned of the disaster "with profound emotion and great sadness", according to his office.

He offered "sincere condolences" and full support to the families of the victims, it said in a statement.

According to a passenger list published by Thai media, more than half of the people onboard were foreign nationals.

They included people from Australia, South Korea, the United States, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Canada and Malaysia, according to the document, which media said they obtained from the airline.

Australia said six of its nationals were feared dead.

"Australian consular officials are in contact with the families of those thought to be on the flight. Lao authorities have told our embassy in Vientiane they do not expect any survivors," a foreign ministry spokesman said.

An official at the South Korean embassy in Bangkok told Yonhap news agency that three South Koreans were among the victims, while China's official Xinhua news agency said two Chinese were killed.

The airline expressed its "condolences" to relatives of the passengers.

"Lao Airlines is taking all necessary steps to coordinate and dispatch all rescue units to the accident site in the hope of finding survivors and at the same time informing relative of the passengers," it said in a statement.

'Absolute horror'

Witnesses reported horrendous scenes at an emergency centre set up in a temple in Pakse.

"I saw lifeless bodies laying about and other lifeless bodies being brought in, some connected to IV drips," a foreign resident told the Bangkok Post.

"It's absolute horror."

The QV301 flight set off from Vientiane on time at 2.45pm (0745 GMT) and was supposed to arrive in Pakse just over an hour later.

French-Italian aircraft manufacturer ATR said the twin-engine turboprop aircraft was new and had been delivered in March.

Founded in 1976, the carrier serves domestic airports and destinations in China, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The country has had 29 fatal air accidents since the 1950s, according to the Aviation Safety Network, whose data showed that the country's safety record has improved dramatically in the last decade.

The last fatal air accident was in October 2000 when eight people died when a plane operated by the airline - then called Lao Aviation - crashed in remote mountains in the northeast of the country.

Landlocked Laos is a closed country with a secretive one-party government. The nation of about seven million people is one of Asia's poorest countries, although tourism is an important part of the economy.

Lao Airlines recorded some 900,000 passengers in 2012 and is expected to exceed 1 million people this year, according to a report in the Vientiane Times in March.