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Pakistan commercial plane goes down en route to Islamabad

Pakistan International Airlines has said that a domestic flight has vanished from radar screens in the north of the country. Witnesses reported seeing the plane on fire before it hit the ground.

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Regional airliner crashes in northern Pakistan

A commercial plane carrying some 42 passengers, five crew members and one ground engineer lost radar contact on Wednesday, an airline spokesman said. The Pakistan International Airlines flight was heading to Islamabad from the northern city of Chitral. According to the carrier, it lost contact with air traffic control shortly before landing.

"No one survived," a Civil Aviation Authority spokesman said. 

At least two Austrians and one Chinese national are among the casualties, according to Pakistan International Airlines.

Local officials told the press that Flight PK-661 has gone down in a village near the town of Havelian, some 75 kilometers (45 miles) northwest of Islamabad.

The twin-propeller ATR-42 aircraft "crashed in a mountainous area, and before it hit the ground it was on fire," government official Taj Muhammad Khan told the Reuters news agency.

The Associated Press reported that Pakistan's interior ministry had deployed a team with experts on identifying bodies through DNA tests. A team of experts would determine the cause of the crash after the plane's black boxes are found, spokesman for Civil Aviation Authority, Pervez George told the agency.

Images broadcast on Pakistani television showed burning wreckage on a mountain slope. Security forces have been mobilized for a search and rescue mission, the Pakistani military said. The soldiers have recovered 36 bodies from the scene.

Police, rescue teams, and local villagers were also searching the site.

"The fuel tank is still on fire. The plane debris is scattered in the mountains and residents told me that it is completely destroyed," local legislator Sardar Aurangzeb Nalota told the AFP news agency.

A Pakistani pop star turned evangelical Muslim cleric, Junaid Jamshed, was on board of the aircraft, an airline official told Reuters. Pakistani cricket star Shoab Malik lamented the deaths of Jamshed and other passengers on Twitter.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also expressed his "deep grief and sorrow" over the incident. In a statement, he said that "the entire nation is deeply saddened over today's unfortunate crash and shares the grief of the families who lost their dear ones."

Later on Wednesday, airline's chairman Azam Sehgal said that the plane contacted ground authorities after one engine failed and issued a Mayday call at 4:14 pm (1114 GMT). It began descending a minute later and disappeared from radar at 4:16 pm.

"This plane was technically sound, and was checked in October," Sehgal said, adding the captain had flown more than 12,000 hours and the twin-propeller aircraft was nine years old. 

"Our focus now is to retrieve all the dead bodies," he added, pledging a full investigation.

Experts often criticize air safety standards in Pakistan, with media reporting on several midair emergencies in recent years.

Islamabad PIA Flight PK661 Absturz Angehörige (picture-alliance/AA)

Relatives of passengers wait for news outside the Benazir International Airport in Islamabad

The last major plane crash in Pakistan happened in 2012, when 130 people were killed. Two years before that, another plane went down in the hills outside Islamabad, claiming 150 lives. Two military helicopters also crashed in separate incidents last year, killing a total of 20 people, including envoys of Norway, the Philippines and Indonesia in the country.

es, dj/kms, se (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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