All 234 on board killed in Garuda plane crash

Tragedy near haze-shrouded Medan ——————————–

ALL 234 passengers and crew on board a Garuda Indonesian Airbus were killed when it crashed yesterday in a mountainous region near the haze-shrouded city of Medan in north Sumatra.

There was no immediate word on the cause of the crash, but sources in Medan told The Straits Times that the dense haze from land and forest fires in the area could have contributed to the disaster

“It is quite clear that the very bad haze conditions are responsible for this crash. The plane had difficulty landing because of poor visibility,” said a reporter from the Antara national news agency at the crash site.

The privately-run Andalas television station, however, reported that the Airbus A-300-B4 aircraft, which was on its way to Medan from Jakarta, exploded in mid-air shortly before landing.

Transport Minister Haryanto Dhanutirto told reporters here as he left for the crash site that preliminary investigations revealed that the aircraft was flying too low and hit a tree before crashing.

The plane went down near the village of Buah Nabar in the Sibolangit district, south of Medan. It hurtled into a deep ravine, 45 km south of the city, and a rescue official said it burst into flames on impact.

Antara quoted Medan’s police chief, Colonel Primanto, as saying that air traffic controllers lost contact with the Airbus about 30 minutes before it was due to land.

But a Transport Ministry official said the plane crashed five minutes before landing.

Other sources said that thick smog made landing at the airport difficult, forcing the plane to hover for five minutes before losing contact with air traffic controllers. Flight 152 from Jakarta was scheduled to land in Medan at 1.45 pm.

According to a Garuda spokesman, the plane had 222 passengers and 12 crew. One of Indonesia’s leading businessmen, Polar Yanto Tanoto, was also on board.

Antara said there were six Japanese and two Americans among the passengers. Bernama said several Malaysians were also on board.

The Singapore Consulate in Medan said it could not confirm immediately whether the plane was carrying any Singaporean.

According to a Reuter report from Paris, the ill-fated plane was delivered to Garuda from the production line in November 1982.

The disaster, the fourth plane crash in Indonesia this year, came against a background of worsening haze conditions caused by land and forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

Yesterday, the smog thickened over Sumatra, causing massive traffic jams and forcing schools to close in several towns.

The Indonesian government has blamed large plantation and forestry firms for the worsening haze as a result of their practice of clearing land by burning.

Many of these firms, however, have refused to accept responsibility for the fires blaming the blazes on small farmers and their traditional slash-and-burn methods.

But in Kuala Lumpur, 31 Malaysian companies suspected of starting some of the forest fires in Indonesia yesterday pledged to contribute more than M$4.5 million (S$2.16 million) to help fight the blazes.

They, however, stressed that the pledge should not be taken as an admission of guilt.

According to news agency reports, Sarawak yesterday relaxed its state of emergency to ensure the environmental crisis did not cripple the state’s commodity-based economy.

Bernama said the move came as the Air Pollutant Index (API) there went down to 286, the lowest since the declaration of the emergency in the state eight days ago.

But the haze in Peninsular Malaysia’s east coast and northern states worsened and officials cited by AFP said several key airports were closed because of poor visibility.

The agency said that the fluctuating levels of the thick haze across Malaysian skies played havoc with flights as airports in the states of Penang, Kedah, Perak and Terengganu were shut down, leaving hundreds stranded.

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