Egyptian Airliner Crashes in Tunisia

An EgyptAir Boeing 737-500 with dozens of people on board went down as it was attempting to land at the airport in the Tunisian capital today, killing at least five people.

On Al Jazeera TV, the Egyptian ambassador in Tunis, Mahdi Fattallah, said there were 63 people on board — 55 passengers and eight crew members — and that so far, there had been 18 people killed and 25 people hospitalized.

The Tunisian national news agency, TAP, said there were at least five deaths, and that 27 survivors were evacuated.

Tunisian aviation officials told Reuters the plane was actually carrying 62 people — 56 passengers and six crew members. The news agency quoted a rescue worker, saying: "at least 20 of the passengers have died."

Fattallah said the pilot survived but the co-pilot and the rest of the crew died, but EgyptAir officials told ABCNEWS the captain and one member of the flight crew are believed to have died in the crash.

Authorities told The AP passengers included 27 Egyptians, 17 Tunisians including a baby, three Algerians, three Jordanians, two Britons, one Saudi, one Palestinian and one Chinese.

Flight 0843 from Cairo to Tunis was on approach to Tunis Carthage airport before it ploughed into a hillside about four miles from the airport, senior Tunisian government officials said.

Weather was foggy and rainy at the time, with sandy wind conditions.

Distress Call

The control tower lost contact with the plane after the pilot sent out a distress call, the TAP news agency reported.

Tunis airport officials told Reuters the plane's landing gear failed to open during the first landing approach. The pilot was making a fresh circuit to attempt another landing when the plane went down, the officials said.

EgyptAir's vice president for safety, Shaker Qilada, denied reports that the plane was making an emergency landing. "It was not an emergency landing," he told The Associated Press in Cairo. "It was a normal landing approach."

The mountainous crash site was difficult to reach, but rescue workers managed to reach it to evacuate the survivors.

A Tunis resident, living near the crash site, told Reuters he saw the plane hit the hill and break into two pieces. "I can see the two pieces from here. One crushed into the hill and the second piece is still laying beside it," he said.

After the crash, about 15 passengers emerged from the wreckage of the plane, some screaming hysterically while others checked to see if other passengers were still alive, he and other witnesses said.

Another witness said he heard one passenger screaming in an apparent Egyptian Arabic accent: "My family, my dears."

The incident comes two days after a BAC 1-11-500 airliner ploughed into a poor suburb of the northern Nigerian city of Kano, killing 148 people, including dozens on the ground, and same day a jet crashed in China, killing dozens.

EgyptAir last suffered a major air disaster when a Boeing 767-366 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean off the U.S. coast in October 1999, killing all 217 people on board.

ABCNEWS' Hoda Osman in Egypt, Lisa Stark and Leela Jacinto contributed to this report.