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Ethiopian Plane Crashes in Comoros Islands

November 24, 1996 GMT

MORONI, Comoros Islands (AP) _ An Ethiopian airliner hijacked with at least 163 passengers aboard crashed today off the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean. At least 30 people survived, Ethiopia said.

Fifty-five people were confirmed dead and another 16 people injured, the Italian Foreign Ministry in Rome said, citing its embassy on the island nation. The rest were missing.

Rough seas, the risk of shark attacks and the darkness of nightfall were all hindering efforts to rescue survivors, according to Ethiopian Airlines and a witness’s account to Radio France Internationale.

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The witness told RFI the plane’s wreckage was in three pieces spread across 200 yards on the shore and in the water.

The Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 767 went down about midday on the north side of Grande Comore, the main island of a three-island chain off Mozambique in east Africa, state-run radio said.

Comoros radio warned all hospitals to prepare to treat the wounded, Donies Pornage, a resident of the Grande Comore capital of Moroni, told The Associated Press by telephone.

There were conflicting reports about whether Flight 961 hit land or water. While state radio said the plane crashed into the beach, island residents told Israeli and French radio that the plane plunged into water about a half-mile offshore.

An employee of the Galawa Beach Hotel told Radio France Internationale that he and other islanders helped rescue survivors.

Abebe Damessa, manager of flight control for Ethiopian Airlines in Addis Ababa, said at least 50 people died.

Israeli’s Foreign Ministry confirmed there were eight Israeli citizens on the flight, while the Italian Foreign Ministry identified two Italians on board who survived.

Eleven Ethiopians hijacked the flight, Israel radio reported.

The hijackers told the pilot to fly to Australia, and didn’t believe him when he said he didn’t have enough fuel, Ethiopia’s news agency said.

The pilot flew on until the plane ran out of fuel and crashed, the news agency said. The pilot was among 30 survivors, it said.

Ethiopian Airlines said the plane carried 163 passengers and 12 crew members from Addis Ababa to Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, contradicting earlier reports of 178 passengers on a flight originating from Bombay, India.

Ethiopian Airlines offers the most connections within Africa of any African airlines. At 50 years old, it is one of Africa’s oldest airlines and until recently had been regarded as one of the best-run in the world. As Ethiopia sank deeper into civil war, the airline ran into financial problems.

It had had three 767s for its long-range routes. Boeing spokesman Brian Ames said the plane, a 767-200ER, was delivered to the airline around 1986. It was the 187th 767 built.

The plane, a wide-body twin jet, has a 7,660-mile range and can carry 181 passengers in three classes, although Ames said he did not know what cabin configuration Ethiopian uses.

Boeing investigators usually go to a crash scene to assist in an investigation if requested, although Ames said he did not believe the request had yet been made. ``We certainly stand ready to assist in any way we can,″ he said.