All 117 passengers dead in Nigerian plane

Twisted chunks of metal, ripped luggage and mangled bodies littered the crash site of a Nigerian jetliner Sunday that slammed into the ground north of the country's largest city in an overnight disaster authorities fear killed all 117 people aboard.

President Olusegun Obasanjo, grieving for his wife who died in Spain within hours of Saturday's crash, asked "all Nigerians to pray for all those aboard the plane and their families."

A local TV station, Africa Independent Television, broadcast footage of villagers in an uninhabited wooded area in Lissa, a small town 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Lagos, looking over the charred wreckage of a destroyed white Boeing 737.

The aircraft was broken into several pieces, and the sky-blue streaked logo of Bellview Airlines could be seen on the aircraft's shattered tail. No rescue workers were visible in the footage.

Villagers said there were no survivors, the station said. Wellington Eyimina, Bellview Airline's chief pilot, told The Associated Press officials from the airline had also visited the site. It was unclear what brought down the jetliner, but it was not thought to be terrorist-related.

Initial reports indicated the plane lost contact with the Lagos control tower five minutes after taking off from Murtala Muhammed international airport in Lagos at 8:45 p.m. (1945 GMT) on Saturday, said Jide Ibinola, a spokesman for the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria.

State radio said pilots issued a distress call before the plane disappeared from radar. The plane was headed to the capital, Abuja, on what was supposed to have been a 50-minute flight, a route popular among Nigerians and expatriates.

Bellview, one of about a dozen local airlines plying Nigeria's skies, is a privately owned Nigerian company that operates a fleet of mostly Boeing 737s on internal routes and throughout West Africa. Bellview first began flying about 10 years ago and has not suffered a crash before.

Many consider Bellview to be among the most reliable of the airlines shuttling between Nigeria's often-chaotic regional airports, which can resemble bus depots where crowds battle for seats on planes.

As news of the crash poured in early Sunday, representatives of many countries gathered at the Lagos airport to find out if any of their citizens were on board the doomed flight.

Abilola Oloko, a spokesman for Oyo state where the plane crashed Saturday, initially said that over half of those on board had survived. But he later said "the latest reports coming to us say that all the people on the plane died." He cited confusion at the crash scene for the conflicting reports, which could not be immediately verified.

Lagos police spokesman Bode Ojajuni said search teams located the crashed plane near Kishi, about 200 kilometers (120 miles) north of Lagos, but Red Cross officials said that information was erroneous and they later also found the plane in Lissa. Airline officials said 117 people were on board - 111 passengers and six crew members.

Obasanjo's office said in a statement that the head of state, currently in Abuja, was personally overseeing search and rescue operations. Obasanjo's wife, Stella, was 59 and would have celebrated her birthday next month. A one-sentence statement signed by presidential spokeswoman Remi Oyo described her as Obasanjo's "beloved wife." No further details were given as to what caused her death.

The Spanish Foreign Ministry said Obasanjo's wife died Sunday morning at a hospital in the southern resort city of Marbella, where she had been on a private visit. The ministry also said it had no information on the cause of death and did not know if she had undergone surgery, as asserted by Nigerian officials in Abuja. The body was taken to a coroner's office in nearby Malaga for an autopsy, the ministry said.

Obasanjo leads sub-Saharan Africa's most-populous nation of 130 million people and has played a key role as peace mediator in West Africa. In May 2002, an EAS Airlines jet plowed into a heavily populated neighborhood after takeoff at the airport outside the northern city of Kano, killing 154 people in the plane and on the ground, AP reports.

A. A.

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