HAVANA (AFP) – A Cuban airliner on a flight to Havana crashed in central Cuba, killing all 68 people on board including 28 foreigners, officials said Friday via state media.
The plane operated by state-run Aerocaribbean “fell to the ground in the region of Guasimal,” after the pilot reported an emergency, according to a statement by Cuba’s Civil Aeronautics Institute read on state television.
“There were no survivors” from the flight which departed Thursday afternoon from the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba bound for the capital, the official website Cubadebate.cu reported.
It was the Communist-ruled island’s worst air disaster in 21 years.
Among the passengers were 10 Europeans, nine Argentinians, seven Mexicans, one Venezuelan and one Japanese, state media reported.
The Europeans included three Dutch, two Germans, two Austrians, and one each from France, Italy and Spain.
There were 40 Cubans on board, including seven crew.
Emergency rescue teams from Sancti Spiritus province where the plane went down, aided by local residents, scrambled to get to the crash site and reached it overnight, finding everyone on board had been killed, officials said.
The Aerocaribbean plane had left Santiago de Cuba, in the island’s far east, ahead of the approach of Tropical Storm Tomas, which was expected to intensify to hurricane status and graze both Cuba and Haiti on Friday.
The twin turbo-propeller ATR-72-212, built by the French-Italian aircraft manufacturer Avions de Transport Regional, lost contact with aviation authorities around 5:42 pm (2242 GMT) and crashed some 300 kilometers (180 miles) southeast of Havana, officials said.
The Civil Aeronautics Institute did not say if foul weather was a factor in the crash. A tropical storm warning was in effect Thursday in Santiago de Cuba province where the plane took off, while neighboring Guantanamo province was under a hurricane warning.
“At the moment, aviation and regional authorities are gathering the facts and details and have created a commission to investigate such a regrettable accident,” the statement said.
The storm had already begun to drench eastern Cuba with rain earlier Thursday, and on the same day Cubana Airlines, another state carrier, canceled all flights in and out of Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo.
Many of the foreigners on board the doomed flight were believed to be tourists. Tourism is the main foreign exchange earner in Cuba after medical care services, bringing in some two billion dollars annually.
Some 2.4 million people visited the Communist-run Caribbean nation in 2009, mainly from Canada, Britain, Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Mexico, Argentina and Russia.
The last crash of a passenger plane in Cuba occurred in March 2002 when a small Antonov-2 went down in the central province of Villa Clara, killing all 16 people — 12 foreign tourists and four Cuban crew — on board.
The deadliest accident in recent decades occurred in September 1989, when a Soviet-era Ilyushin IL-62 bound for Milan crashed shortly after takeoff from Havana, killing all 115 passengers, 113 of them Italian tourists, as well as several crew members and another 40 people on the ground.