, Pakse, Laos October 17- Rescuers searched for bodies on Thursday after a Lao Airlines plane believed to be carrying 49 people, around half of them foreigners, plunged into the Mekong River during stormy weather.
Seven French citizens, six Australians and five Thais were among those thought to have been killed when the turboprop ATR 72 came down on Wednesday near Pakse airport in Champasak province.
Debris was seen floating in the river at the scene of the disaster, while suitcases were wedged in mud on the riverbank, according to an AFP reporter.
Around a dozen rescuers were using a crane perched on a floating platform in the middle of the Mekong to try to winch the submerged aircraft from the river, which was swollen by a recent tropical storm.
Divers from a Thai rescue team were on the scene to assist in the operation.
State owned Lao Airlines said more than half of the 44 passengers and five crew onboard were foreign nationals.
Rescue teams have recovered six bodies so far but no survivors, said an airline official in Pakse.
“We can’t find most bodies or the plane yet because the aircraft has sunk,” he told AFP.
Citizens from up to 11 countries were reported to have been on the flight from the capital Vientiane.
Some of those killed were taken to a mortuary at a Chinese temple in Pakse, which is a hub for tourists travelling to more remote areas in southern Laos.
Three bodies draped in blue plastic sheets were seen in the building, which was guarded by some 10 policemen, some armed, who turned away onlookers.
“They are foreigners from the crash,” staff at the centre told AFP, adding that their nationalities were unknown.
Lao Airlines said the aircraft hit “extreme” bad weather while witnesses described seeing the aircraft buffeted by strong winds.
“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,” state run Laos news agency KPL quoted a witness as saying.
France said it was rushing embassy officials to the site of the crash in Pakse.
French President Francois Hollande learned of the disaster “with profound emotion and great sadness” and offered “sincere condolences” and full support to the victims’ families, his office said in a statement.
According to a passenger list published by Thai media, people from the United States, Vietnam, Canada and Malaysia were on the flight.
Australia said six of its nationals were feared dead, including a family of four.
The family of two Australian men missing, father and son Gordon and Michael Creighton, issued a statement requesting privacy “at this devastating time”.
“We have lost a father, a husband, a son, a brother, a fiancé and a best mate in one tragic circumstance and are trying to come to terms with our loss,” they said.
Thailand said five of its nationals had died.
Three South Koreans were also among the victims, according to the Transport Ministry in Seoul.
Taiwan said one of its citizens was killed while Beijing’s official Xinhua news agency said one Chinese was on board. It said an earlier figure of two had included the Taiwanese victim.
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.
The director general of the country’s Department of Civil Aviation, Yakua Lopangkao, told the Vientiane Times newspaper that the accident may have occurred due to bad weather triggered by tropical storm Nari.
Founded in 1976, Lao Airlines serves domestic airports and destinations in China, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Impoverished Laos, a one party communist state, has had 29 fatal air accidents since the 1950s, according to the Aviation Safety Network, whose data showed that the country’s safety record had improved dramatically in the last decade.
The last fatal air accident was in October 2000 when eight people died after a plane operated by the airline then called Lao Aviation crashed in remote mountains in the northeast of the country.