At least nine Australians missing in deadly Indonesian plane fire

Australians should prepare for the worst as officials try to account for four Australians missing in a deadly plane fire Wednesday in Indonesia, Prime Minister John Howard said.

At least nine Australians - diplomatic and security officials and journalists connected to a visit by two government ministers - were aboard the Garuda Indonesia plane that was engulfed in flames shortly after landing at Yogyakarta airport in central Java island on Wednesday.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said five of the nine survived the fire with injuries, and information was urgently being sought on the others.

Howard said he had information about the fate of the Australians on board, but that it was unconfirmed and he did not want to elaborate yet because it could cause distress to victims' relatives.

"We should be prepared for bad news in relation to at least some of the Australians on board the aircraft," Howard said at a news conference in Melbourne that was televised nationally.

"It is a terrible tragedy," Howard said. "Many lives have been lost and our love and sympathy and condolences go to those who are suffering distress and grief."

Howard said Indonesian officials had confirmed 49 deaths, though it was not clear where that information came from. Officials in Indonesia said 21 deaths were confirmed.

Downer, speaking to reporters in Jakarta, said nine Australians were aboard the flight and that five were confirmed to have been injured. He said officials were still seeking information about the other four, indicating they were missing.

The Australians on board were diplomatic staff and journalists who were traveling from the capital, Jakarta, ahead of Downer and Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock, who had been due to attend a function later Wednesday. Neither minister was aboard the stricken plane.

Howard said he has no information suggesting that the fire was caused by foul play.

"I have not received any advice suggesting it was anything other than a tragic accident," Howard said. "I've not receive any advice suggesting that there was sabotage or a terrorist attack."

Television footage shot by a cameraman for Australia's Seven Network who survived the landing showed bloodied passengers stumbling through a field away from the plane, as black smoke, then orange flames, poured from the fuselage.

An explosion and fireball ripped through the air, apparently as the fire reached a fuel tank, the footage showed.

It showed dazed and burned victims, including Indonesians and Westerners, sitting on the floor or lying on gurneys in the airport terminal, the AP reports. 

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on its Web site that Cynthia Banham, the paper's Canberra-based diplomatic and defense reporter, was among the injured survivors.

The paper's Indonesia correspondent Mark Forbes said a colleague from The Australian Financial Review, Morgan Mellish, was believed to be among the missing.

Australian media reported that two Australian Federal Police officers and an official from the Australian Embassy in Jakarta were the others missing.

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