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August 12, 2009

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'Grave concerns' as plane vanishes prior to landing

A CHARTER plane carrying 13 people to a popular tourist site in Papua New Guinea vanished on approach to an airport nestled in rugged terrain during bad weather yesterday. Australia's foreign minister said a "possible crash site" may have been found.

The twin-engine plane left the capital of Port Moresby en route to an airport near the country's Kokoda Track, a mountainous 100-kilometer trail. The plane's crew radioed air traffic controllers as it was approaching the airstrip, but the aircraft never landed, said Allen Tyson, a spokesman for Airlines PNG.

A search and rescue mission was immediately launched, Tyson said. The plane, carrying 11 passengers, including nine Australians, and two crew, had an emergency locator beacon, but it was not transmitting, he said.

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said in Canberra, capital of Australia, that a search helicopter had landed in a village thought to be near a "possible crash site" last night.

"I say a 'possible crash site' because PNG authorities, PNG Airlines and Australian officials are relying on information relayed by villagers on the ground," Smith said.

Efforts to locate the plane were being hampered by bad weather, low visibility and rugged terrain in the mountainous region.

"We hope, weather permitting, that a substantially enhanced search and rescue effort can commence tomorrow morning," Smith said.

The Kokoda Track is a popular tourist destination for Australians. On board the plane were eight Australian tourists and an Australian tour guide planning to walk the trail as part of a trek organized by the adventure tour company No Roads Expeditions, the company said. Another guide from Papua New Guinea was also on board, the company said.

"We hold grave concerns for their safety and well-being," Smith said.

The Australian High Commission in Port Moresby was working with authorities in the Pacific island nation to determine what happened, Smith said. Searchers were also checking other small airstrips in the area to see if the plane landed elsewhere.


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