About 48 people are believed to have been killed when a Russian-built plane exploded and crashed in northeastern Angola, according to diplomats and news agency reports today.
Portugal’s Lusa news agency said in a report from Luanda that 48 Russians had died in the crash late on Tuesday.
But a Foreign Ministry source in Moscow said no Russian nationals were aboard the plane, which is reported to have exploded over northern Angola.
“According to the latest information, there were no Russians aboard and the crew was Ukrainian. The plane was Russian made, but it belonged to an Angolan company,” the source said.
An official of Angola’s civil aviation authority said there had been an accident in the north of the country which was being investigated, but said he could not confirm any details.
A spokesman for the local operating company, Guicango, was quoted by Lusa as saying that an aircraft carrying 42 passengers and six crew exploded in the air on Tuesday night near the northern Angolan town of Saurimo, 450 miles east of Luanda.
The accident occurred about 30 miles from Saurimo, capital of Lunda Sul province in the former Portuguese colony which is sunk in a decades-old civil war.
Rebels Downed Planes in 1999
Angola has seen a string of plane disasters in recent years involving Russian-built planes which the formerly Marxist government obtained when it was backed by the Soviet Union.
Last year, the UNITA rebel group claimed responsibility for shooting down at least two Russian-built Antonovs. One of them was downed in Lunda Sul province, the scene of the latest catastrophe.
In February last year, two Antonovs crashed two days apart. One plunged into a poor Luandan neighbourhood, killing around 30 people, including 20 on the ground.
Jackie Potgieter, a Pretoria-based regional analyst, told Reuters it was possible that the plane had been shot down by UNITA rebels operating in the area.
He said UNITA’s hold on Saurimo’s rich diamond-mining industry had been broken by government forces, but that rebel units appeared still to be active in the area and to control some mines.
Diamonds and, until the country’s elephant herds were largely wiped out, ivory have funded much of UNITA’s activity in the 25 years since independence from Portugal in 1975.
“It would be within the capacity of UNITA to bring the plane down. It would be in their interests. It would raise the profile of their activities again and it would force the Angolan government to concentrate forces in the area,” Potgieter said.
He said UNITA was known to have shoulder-fired SAM 7 missiles and was believed also to have some more modern SAM 16 missiles.
A UNITA source said he could not comment on suggestions the plane was downed by anti-government rebels.