SALONIKA, Greece (Reuters and AP) - Greek rescue teams clawed through rugged mountains covered with snow and low clouds on Thursday searching in frightful conditions for a missing Ukrainian airliner with at least 70 people aboard. Officials said there was growing concern that the plane would not be found before nightfall because of the foul weather.
'Weather conditions in the area are adverse with a cloud cover as low as 800 feet hiding mountain tops and snow in the area with visibility about 100-150 metres,' Athanasios Tzoganis, Greece's defense chief of staff, told reporters. 'This is why we haven't had any results yet,' he said. The Russian-built Yakovlev 42 plane, flown by Ukraine's Aerosweet Airlines, disappeared from radar screens late on Wednesday evening as it prepared to land in Salonika airport after a flight from Kyiv via Odessa. Authorities said they were now focusing their search on a mountainous region some 50 km (30 miles) southwest of Salonika, north of the celebrated Mount Olympus of ancient Greek legend.
More than 1,000 military personnel were involved in the search, aided by locals including farmers on tractors. Villagers in one remote area fired rifles in the air hoping to attract attention from possible survivors. The airline said the plane was carrying 62 passengers, including 40 Greeks, and eight crew when it disappeared. There were two infants and four children among the passengers, it said.
One Greek construction company, Michaniki, said 23 of its employees had been on board the plane returning for Christmas from building works in Odessa.
In one of a number of conflicting reports, a Ukrainian official said the plane was carrying 33 Greeks, 25 Ukrainians, two Poles, one German and one Russian and the eight-member Ukrainian crew.
A Ukrainian civil defense official also said the aircraft may have been carrying some delegates who had accompanied Greek President Costis Stephanopoulos on a visit to Ukraine this week. Stephanopoulos' office said all official members of the delegation were accounted for.
Aerosweet's station manager in Athens, Efi Papachristopoulou, said the plane had not shown any sign of difficulty.
'It had reported no trouble 'til its last contact with the control tower, minutes before it disappeared,' she said. Greek media said the plane had been flying at only 3,800 feet when last heard from, far lower than many of the mountains in the region.
'It flew once over the corridor without landing (at Salonika) and was given permission to make another attempt, during which it vanished,' civil aviation deputy commander George Souladakis told reporters.
The plane lost contact with air traffic controllers at 9:13 p.m. while making a second attempt to land at Salonica's airport.
Greek media reported the pilot was asked to circle and make another approach because of heavy air traffic at the time. Unconfirmed reports suggested the pilot became confused, possibly because of difficulties in communicating in English with the tower in Salonica.
Tzoganis said it seemed 'human error' played a role in the apparent tragedy.
But Igor Kulikovsky, chief of Ukraine's state-owned Air Kyiv, described the approach to Salonica airport as 'very hard for a pilot.'
'You have mountains on one side and the sea on another side. It's very hard to get oriented,' he said. Civilians braved heavy rain and bitter cold to offer their help to the soldiers.
'It's freezing and difficult to see anything but the moment I heard this spot was being searched I had to come here. I have relatives on that plane,' said an elderly man during the night.
Relatives of people aboard the missing plane rushed to Salonika airport to wait for news.
'We were told that a crash could not be confirmed and that anything was possible, like a forced landing in a remote area,' said a young man whose uncle was on the plane. The federation of civil aviation employees, which had scheduled two work stoppages on Thursday as part of a nationwide strike against a strict 1998 budget, announced it was suspending its walkouts.
There has been a long series of crashes involving former Soviet aircraft, both commercial and military. Accidents have been generally attributed to cash shortages which lower already poor maintenance levels and place extra pressure on air crews.
A Tajik Air Tupolev-154 plane with 86 people aboard crashed in the United Arab Emirates desert on Monday, killing all but one person.
On December 6, a giant Antonov An-124 military cargo plane with two fighter jets on board crashed into an apartment building in the Siberian city of Irkutsk shortly after take-off. Rescuers recovered 45 bodies and parts of 16 others. In addition, 39 people were reported missing. The Yak-42, a three turbo-fan jet designed by Soviet engineers, can carry as many as 120 passengers. It entered service in the Aeroflot fleet in 1980 and is currently used in Russia, Lithuania, Cuba, China and Ukraine, among other countries.
In November 1993, 115 people were killed when a chartered Yak-42 crashed into a mountain near Ohrid in southwestern Macedonia.
The same type aircraft crashed near the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing in July 1992, killing 106 people.
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