KINSHASA - At least 19 people died when a Russian-made cargo plane crashed and exploded in a teeming neighbourhood of Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo's capital, officials said.
Seventeen passengers and crew on the Antonov 26 aircraft belonging to Congolese airline Africa 1 were killed when it came down on several houses in the Kingasani neighbourhood, shortly after taking off from Ndjili international airport.
One father found the bodies of his young son and daughter crushed by a wall. Debris from the crash was widely scattered over neighbouring streets and buildings.
"There has been heavy damage. Two houses have been completely destroyed," deputy Health Minister Ferdinand Ntua told Reuters at the crash site. "There are a lot of dead but for the moment we have no figures."
Air travel is notoriously dangerous in Congo. In 1996, at least 350 people died when a Russian-built Antonov-32 cargo plane ploughed through a crowded market in central Kinshasa, in the former Belgian colony's worst air disaster.
The Africa 1 aircraft was carrying 14 Congolese passengers and three Ukrainian crew, according to the plane's manifest.
"All the members of the crew and passengers are dead," a rescue official told Reuters.
A Reuters eye witness saw at least six corpses pulled from the wreckage of the plane as Red Cross and fire men joined family members picking through the devastation.
The stench of burning debris and jet fuel filled the air. Police struggled to hold back around 1,000 onlookers.
An airport security official who arrived quickly at the crash site said fire fighters had initially struggled to reach the wreckage in the crowded shanty town.
"There are at least four houses burning, the airplane is burning ... There's a lot of smoke and flames, everybody in the houses must be dead," he said.
A spokesman for the 17,000-strong United Nations mission in Congo (MONUC), the largest in the world, said it had dispatched a rescue team and firefighters to the scene.
Ageing planes in Congo suffer from a lack of maintenance and spare parts but they are often the only way to transport people and goods across the vast central African country that is slowly recovering from a 1998-2003 civil war.
Eight people were killed in early September when another Antonov cargo plane overshot the runway and caught fire while landing in the eastern Congolese town of Goma.
Congo, a country the size of West Europe with only a few hundred kilometres (miles) of paved roads, has one of Africa's worst air safety records and was dubbed an "embarrassment" by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) last year.
Africa 1 is on the European Union's airline blacklist. All airlines certified by Democratic Republic of Congo authorities - except for Hewa Bora Airways - are banned from the EU.