By Joe Bavier
KINSHASA (Reuters) – A Russian-made cargo plane with 17 people on board crashed and exploded on Thursday in a teeming neighbourhood of Democratic Republic of Congo's capital Kinshasa, killing many people, officials and witnesses said.
The Antonov aircraft belonging to Congolese airline Africa 1 came down on several shacks in the Kingasani neighbourhood near Ndjili international airport, the sources said.
"There were 17 people on board," said airport protocol official Jean-Claude Bakongo. A major explosion followed the crash, he said. "I saw it fall in the Kingasani neighbourhood."
Another airport security official who went to the crash site told Reuters fire fighters had struggled to reach the wreckage in the 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 of the accident.
"There are casualties, many dead, but I don't have any specifics," said Major Gabriel De Brosses.
Air travel is notoriously dangerous in Congo. In 1996, at least 350 people died when a Russian-built Antonov-32 cargo plane crashed into a crowded market in central Kinshasa.
Ageing planes 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 a 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.
(Additional reporting by Lubunga Bya'Ombe in Kinshasa and Finbarr O'Reilly in Dakar)