By UPENDRA MAN SINGH and SHEIKH SAALIQ
KATHMANDU, Nepal (AP) — A 72-seat Nepali passenger aircraft crashed into a gorge while landing at a newly opened airport in the central resort town of Pokhara on Sunday, killing at least 32 people, an official said.
Rescuers scoured the crash site near the Seti River, which is about 1.6 kilometers (nearly a mile) away from Pokhara International Airport, using ropes to pull out bodies from the wreckage, parts of which were hanging over the edge of the gorge.
Tek Bahadur K. C., a senior administrative officer in the Kaski district, said he expected rescue workers to find more bodies at the bottom of the gorge.
It was not immediately clear what caused the plane to crash.
The twin-engine ATR 72 aircraft, operated by Nepal’s Yeti Airlines, was carrying 68 passengers, including 15 foreign nationals, and four crew members, Nepal’s Civil Aviation Authority said in a statement. The foreigners included five Indians, four Russians, two South Koreans, and one each from Ireland, Australia, Argentina and France.
The aviation authority said the aircraft last made contact with the airport from near Seti Gorge at 10:50 a.m. before crashing.
Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who rushed to the airport after the crash, said the plane was flying from the capital, Kathmandu, to Pokhara. He urged security personnel and the general public to help with the rescue efforts.
Images and videos shared on Twitter showed plumes of smoke billowing from the crash site as rescue workers, Nepali soldiers, and crowds of people gathered around the wreckage of the aircraft.
The type of plane involved, the ATR 72, has been used by several airlines around the world to for short regional flights. Introduced in the late 1980s by a French and Italian partnership, the aircraft model has been involved in several deadly accidents over the years. In 2018, an ATR 72 operated by Iran’s Aseman Airlines crashed in a foggy, mountainous region, killing all 65 aboard.
ATR identified the plane involved in Sunday’s crash as an ATR 72-500 in a tweet. According to plane tracking data from flightradar24.com, the aircraft was 15 years old and “equipped with an old transponder with unreliable data.” Yeti Airlines has a fleet of six ATR72-500 planes, company spokesperson Sudarshan Bartaula said.
Pokhara, located 200 kilometers (125 miles) west of Kathmandu, is the gateway to the Annapurna Circuit, a popular hiking trail in the Himalayas. Pokhara International Airport began operations only two weeks ago. The flight from Kathmandu normally takes 27 minutes.
Sunday’s crash is Nepal’s deadliest since March 2018, when a US-Bangla Airlines passenger plane from Bangladesh crashed on landing in Kathmandu, killing 49 of the 71 people aboard.
Nepal, home to eight of the world’s 14 highest mountains, including Mount Everest, has a history of air crashes. According to the Flight Safety Foundation’s Aviation Safety database, there have been 42 fatal plane crashes in Nepal since 1946.
Last year, 22 people died when a plane crashed on a mountainside in Nepal. In 2016, a Tara Air Twin Otter flying from Pokhara to Kathmandu crashed after takeoff, killing all 23 people aboard.
In 2012, an Agni Air plane flying from Pokhara to Jomsom crashed, killing 15 people. Six people survived. In 2014, a Nepal Airlines plane flying from Pokhara to Jumla crashed, killing all 18 on board.
In 1992, all 167 people aboard a Pakistan International Airlines plane were killed when it plowed into a hill as it tried to land in Kathmandu.
Saaliq reported from New Delhi.
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