SAN’A, Yemen, (AP) – A passenger jet from Yemen with 153 people on board crashed in the Indian Ocean early Tuesday as it tried to land during heavy wind on the island nation of Comoros, a Yemeni aviation official said.
Bodies were spotted floating off the coast and a Comoros police official said three had been recovered so far. There was no word on survivors.
Yemeni civil aviation deputy chief Mohammed Abdul Qader said there were 142 passengers and a crew of 11 Yemenis on board when the plane, which had set off from the Yemeni capital of San’a, went down before landing in Moroni, on the main island of Grand Comore.
The majority of the passengers were from the Comoros islands, returning home from Paris, he said. Those on board included families with children and there were at least three babies on board, he added.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in a statement that 66 of the passengers were French. He said French aviation and naval support was heading to help in search operations at the Comoros government’s request.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy “expressed his deep emotion” about the accident and asked the French military to help in the rescue operation, particularly from the French islands of Mayotte and Reunion, according to a statement from his office.
Abdul Qader, the Yemeni official, said bodies have been spotted floating off the archipelago and that a rescue and search effort was under way. He said Yemeni, French and Comoron officials were coordinating to investigate the plane crash.
“They spotted an oil spill 16 or 17 miles in the Ocean off the (Moroni) airport,” Abdul Qader said, adding that three Comoron boats are searching for the debris and bodies. “The wind speed was 61 kilometers per hour as the plane was landing.”
Rachida Abdullah, a police immigration officer who works at the operations center in the Comoros, told The Associated Press that the bodies of three Comoros nationals were recovered along with debris from the plane. She said the search was ongoing since 4 a.m. Tuesday.
Kouchner expressed “sincere condolences” and said the French Embassy in Moroni was “fully mobilized” to help families. The French junior minister for cooperation, Alain Joyandet, is heading Tuesday to Moroni, the statement said.
The Comoros is an archipelago of three main islands situated about 1,800 miles (2,900 kilometer) south of Yemen, between Africa’s southeastern coast and Madagascar.
Christophe Prazuck, French military spokesman, says that patrol boat, the Rieuse and fregate Nivose, a reconnaissance ship, were being sent to crash site as well as Transall, a military transport plane.
The French were sending divers as well as medical personnel on the plane, he said.
On the Indian Ocean island of Ile de la Reunion, an official statement from the French prefecture said the crash occurred at 0250 GMT Tuesday.
In Paris, a crisis cell was set up at Charles de Gaulle airport.
According to Paris Airports press service, 67 of the passengers on board the Airbus 310 had flown from France on Monday on an Airbus 330. Most of them were from the French city of Marseille, which has a large Comoros community and where the plane briefly landed to pick up more crew and passengers.
Another crisis cell has been established in Marseille, according to Stephane Salord, the consul general of the Comoros in the Provence-Alps-Cote d’Azur region of France.
“There is considerable dismay,” Salord said. “These are families that, each year on the eve of summer, leave Marseille and the region to rejoin their families in the Comoros and spend their holidays.”
In France, this week is the start of annual summer school vacations.
An Airbus statement said the plane that crashed went into service 19 years ago, in 1990, and had accumulated 51,900 flight hours. It has been operated by Yemenia (Yemen Airways) since 1999.
Airbus identifies the plane’s serial number as 535, and said it was sending a team of specialists to the Comoros.
The A310-300 is a twin-engine widebody jet that can seat up to 220 passengers. There are 214 A310s in service worldwide with 41 operators.