Pygmies asked to help find plane carrying tycoon

June 21, 2010 12:00 am

, YAOUNDE, Jun 21 – The French military on Monday joined the search in jungle on the Cameroon-Congo border for a plane carrying one of Australia\’s richest men and 10 other mining executives that is feared to have crashed.

Congo-Brazzaville authorities said they would call on pygmy tribesmen to join the hunt for the Casa C212, which had been chartered by mining company Sundance Resources, and went missing on Saturday.

Thick fog over the jungle hampered efforts to locate the plane, which had been carrying the entire Sundance board, including tycoon Ken Talbott, on a flight from Yaounde, Cameroon\’s capital, to Yangadou in northwest Congo-Brazzaville.

Six Australians, two British, two French and one US national were on the plane.

Two extra Cameroon government helicopters along with a French military C-160 transporter and Cougar helicopter have been added to the hunt, officials said.

Australian, American and Canadian officials were said to be helping the governments comb the hilly, densely wooded border area with planes and helicopters.

"It is the dry season and there is a lot of fog in the forest zone. It\’s not easy," said Colonel Pomphile Akoli-Awaya, commissioner for Brazzaville\’s Maya-Maya airport. "We will need to call in the pygmies, who are more mobile in the forest, for this operation."

Cameroon\’s Communications Minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary told AFP: "An intense search is under way. We have put every means possible into increasing the efficiency of the search."

Yangadou is a remote mining town and only small planes can land at the airstrip there.

Sundance\’s ex-chairman, George Jones, said the board had shared the flight as Talbot\’s private jet was unable to land at Yangadou. "It\’s unusual for an entire board. It actually breaches corporate governance and obviously relates to the fact they could only get on one plane," Jones told Fairfax Radio.

Sundance, an iron ore miner, halted its African operations and ordered staff to help the frantic search for the twin turboprop plane carrying Talbot, whose fortune is estimated at $840 million by BRW business magazine.

Even Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd expressed concern on Monday.

"All of our diplomatic and consular resources are being dedicated to this…. We will leave literally no stone unturned in our efforts to try and help what is a concerning set of developments for these families."

Ground controllers lost contact with the plane shortly after it took off from Yaounde. As well as Talbot, the four other members of the Sundance board, Geoff Wedlock, Don Lewis, Craig Oliver and John Carr-Greg, were all on the plane.

Natasha Flacon Brian, a French woman based in Australia who worked for Sundance, a consultant and a British citizen and the British pilot were also on board.

Trading in Sundance shares was halted and chief financial officer Peter Canterbury was named acting chief executive.

"At this point in time all of our efforts have been concentrated to locate the missing aircraft and to support the families of those on board. This is Sundance Resources\’ highest priority," Canterbury said.

"This is a deeply distressing time for the families of the missing, their friends and work colleagues."

Reports said Talbot, a truck driver\’s son, first made his fortune through a network of pubs before founding mining company Macarthur Coal, reports said. He left Macarthur over corruption charges and is due to go on trial in August.

Company chairman Wedlock is an ex-head of BHP Billiton\’s iron ore division, while Flacon Brian is an executive with Talbot\’s resources investment company, Talbot Group.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said Australia\’s High Commissioner to Nigeria had been sent to Cameroon along with two other officials.


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