PAKSE, Laos - Lao Airlines on Saturday said it had identified almost half of the 30 bodies so far recovered after a plane carrying dozens of people, many of them foreign travellers, plunged into the Mekong River.
In the country's deadliest known air disaster, all those on board died when the Lao Airlines turboprop ATR-72 plunged into the swollen waters in stormy weather on Wednesday near Pakse airport in Champassak province.
More than half of the 49 passengers and crew were foreigners from 10 countries.
According to the airline, 44 passengers and five crew were on the flight. The passengers included 16 Lao nationals, seven French, six Australians, five Thais, three Koreans, three Vietnamese and one person each from China, Malaysia, Taiwan and the United States. A person who had been listed as a Canadian was instead added to the list of Vietnamese.
Lao Airlines said that its team, in cooperation with Thai rescuers, investigators from the French-Italian aircraft manufacturer and local authorities, had identified 14 of the 30 bodies found so far.
Two Australian passengers, the Cambodian captain and several members of the crew were among those named so far.
``Our thoughts and prayers are with the families affected by this terrible tragedy,'' the carrier said in a statement.
On the riverbank, a group of orange-robed Buddhist monks performed a prayer ceremony for the victims whose bodies have been recovered and those still missing.
Families of those identified have already begun holding funerals for their loved ones.
``This is the biggest loss in my life,'' Souksamone Phommasone told AFP as he prepared to cremate his wife Chinda.
She died along with her mother and father as they returned in the ill-fated aircraft from a visit to see the couple's daughter in Vientiane.
Teams of Thai and French experts plied the vast and muddy Mekong River with high-tech sonar equipment, ramping up the search for the plane and clues to why the aircraft went down three days earlier.
Lao Airlines said in a brief statement that offered no update of the ongoing investigation. The ATR-72 aircraft was delivered in March, raising questions into why a virtually new plane crashed.
Until Saturday, the search for bodies and the plane's flight data recorder had been stalled by lack of manpower and equipment in the poor Southeast Asian country, which lacks capabilities in disaster management.
France's air accident investigation agency, the BEA, said it sent four investigators to help Laos with the probe. It said the team would work with technical advisers from ATR, the French-Italian manufacturer of the aircraft.
The Thai Air Force, meanwhile, sent a C-130 military transport plane with specialists and equipment, including several high-tech sonar systems, to locate objects on the river floor.
The French and Thai teams set out on small boats scanning the water's surface with the sonar equipment Saturday, a stark contrast to previous days of searching that included Lao villagers peering into the murky water from long-tail boats.
Experts say the flight data and voice recorders could help determine if the crash was caused by human error or a technical problem. The chief pilot has been identified as 56-year-old Young San of Cambodia, who had more than 30 years of flying experience.
Cambodia's civil aviation security director, Mak Sam Ol, said he was briefed by Lao authorities on a final instruction from the control tower.
``Due to a storm and strong winds, as the plan approached landing, the air controller told the pilot to change course,'' Mak Sam Ol said in a telephone interview. ``He followed instructions but the plane faced strong storms and couldn't get through.''
Thai Navy scuba divers equip the boat with sonar during the search for the bodies of victims from the crash site of the Lao Airlines plane in Pakse, Champassak province, on Saturday. (Photo by Tawatchai Kemkumnerd)
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