A file picture shows passengers boarding the first Airbus A320 flight of Lao Airlines at the Vientiane International Airport, on July 16, 2003. -AFP Photo
BANGKOK: A Lao Airlines plane carrying at least 44 people, including French and Thai citizens, crashed as it tried to land in southern Laos killing all on board on Wednesday, officials said.
At least seven French citizens and five Thais were among those killed when the plane travelling from the capital Vientiane plunged into the Mekong River around eight kilometres (five miles) from Pakse airport in Champasak province in southern Laos, officials said.
“I can now confirm, according to our reports, that all 44 people on board have died, including five Thai,” Thai foreign ministry spokesman Sek Wannamethee told AFP, adding that he had been told there were 39 passengers and five crew.
State-owned Lao Airlines confirmed the crash in a statement on its official Facebook page, in which it said there were 44 passengers and an additional five crew.
It said the aircraft hit “extreme” bad weather and had crashed into the Mekong.
“There were no news of survivors at this time,” it said, but did not confirm any deaths.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France was rushing embassy officials to the site of the crash in Pakse, which is a hub for tourists travelling to more remote areas in southern Laos.
“I have just learned with deep shock and great sadness of the air disaster that took place in southern Laos in which at least seven of our compatriots were killed,” he said in a statement.
“My first thoughts are with the families and friends of the victims,” he said, adding that a crisis team had been set up to help the families of the victims.
An unconfirmed passenger list obtained by AFP suggested that more than half of the people onboard were foreign nationals, including those from Australia, South Korea, the United States, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Canada and Malaysia.
Some 17 people were listed as Laos nationals.
An official at the South Korean embassy in Bangkok told Yonhap news agency that three South Koreans were also among the dead.
Pictures on Thai television showed a small plane, half submerged in the river, with what appeared to be bodies lying on the banks.
The airline expressed “our condolences to family, friends, colleagues and relatives” of the passengers.
“Lao Airlines is taking all necessary steps to coordinate and dispatch all rescue units to the accident site in the hope of finding survivors and at the same time informing relative of the passengers,” the English language statement said.
The QV301 flight set off from Vientiane on time at 2.45pm (0745 GMT) and was supposed to arrive in Paske just over an hour later.
Images shared on social media, which AFP could not independently verify, showed people dragging broken shards of the plane from the river.
A spokesman from aircraft manufacturer ATR in France confirmed the crash and told AFP that the state-owned Lao Airlines flight was one of its twin-engine turboprop ATR-72 planes. He said Lao Airlines has a fleet of six ATR-72 planes.
An official at the Vietnamese Embassy in Laos told AFP on condition of anonymity that all on board the plane had been killed.
Founded in 1976, the carrier operates a fleet of ATR-72 turboprop, Airbus A320 and Chinese-made MA60 planes, serving domestic airports and destinations in China, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, according to its website.
The country has had 29 fatal air accidents since the 1950s, according to the Aviation Safety Network, whose data showed that the country's safety record has improved dramatically in the last decade.
The last fatal air accident was in October 2000 when eight people died when a plane operated by the airline, then called Lao Aviation, crashed in remote mountains in the northeast of the country.
Communist Laos, landlocked between Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and China, is a closed country with a secretive one-party government.
The nation of about seven million people is one of Asia's poorest countries and is highly dependent on foreign donors.
The economy is relatively insulated from global trade and financial networks, though Laos has become a popular tourism destination and mining has played an increasingly important role in growth.
Lao Airline operates domestic flights as well as a limited number of international flights to other regional countries.
The carrier recorded some 900,000 passengers in 2012 and is expected to exceed 1 million people this year, according to a report in the Vientiane Times in March.
It said the country's tourist arrivals reached 3.3 million in 2012, an increase of 22 per cent compared to the previous year.