Explosion forces plane to make emergency landing in Somalia

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- An explosion and fire blew a gaping hole in a commercial airliner, forcing it to make an emergency landing at Mogadishu's international airport late Tuesday, officials and witnesses said.

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The pilot said he thought it was a bomb. An aviation expert who looked at photographs of the hole in the fuselage said the damage was consistent with an explosive device.

Two people were slightly injured as 74 passengers and crew of the plane were evacuated after the plane made a safe landing, Somali aviation official Ali Mohamoud said. It was not certain if all the passengers were accounted for.

The plane, operated by Daallo Airlines and headed to Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, was forced to land minutes after taking off from the Mogadishu airport, said Mohamoud.

"I think it was a bomb," said the Serbian pilot, Vladimir Vodopivec, who was quoted by Belgrade daily Blic. "Luckily, the flight controls were not damaged so I could return and land at the airport. Something like this has never happened in my flight career. We lost pressure in the cabin. Thank god it ended well," the 64-year-old pilot said.

Awale Kullane, Somalia's deputy ambassador to the U.N. who was on board the flight, said on Facebook that he "heard a loud noise and couldn't see anything but smoke for a few seconds." When visibility returned they realized "quite a chunk" of the plane was missing, he wrote.

Kullane, who was going to Djibouti to attend a conference for diplomats, also posted a video showing some passengers putting on oxygen masks inside the plane. The post was later removed from his Facebook page.

"We don't know a lot, but certainly it looks like a device," said John Goglia, a former member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety and aviation safety expert. There are only two things that could have caused a hole in the plane that looks like the one in photos circulated online -- a bomb or a pressurization blowout caused by a flaw or fatigue in the plane's skin, said Goglia.

The photos appear to show black soot around the aircraft skin that is peeled back, said Goglia. A pressurization blowout wouldn't create soot, but a bomb would, he said.

Also, information about the event posted online indicate it took place during the takeoff phase of flight before the plane reached 30,000 feet (9,144 metres), where there is maximum pressurization, Goglia said. That makes the case for a pressurization blowout even less likely, he said.

Another passenger, Mohamed Ali, told The Associated Press that he and others heard a bang before flames opened a gaping hole in the plane's side.

"I don't know if it was a bomb or an electric shock, but we heard a bang inside the plane," he said, adding he could not confirm reports that passengers had fallen from the plane.

Although the Somali aviation official said that there were only two injuries, there were unverified reports that a person fell out of the hole. Mohamed Hassan, a police officer in nearby Balad town, said residents had found the dead body of an old man who might have fallen from a plane. Balad is an agricultural town 30 kilometres (about 18 miles) north of Mogadishu.

On Dec. 11, 1994, a bomb blew a 2-foot (0.61-meter) hole in the floor leading to the cargo hold of a Philippine Airlines jetliner with 293 people aboard, but the pilot was able to make a safe emergency landing. One passenger was killed and 10 others were injured on the Manila-to-Japan flight.

The plane was flying at about 33,000 feet (10,058 metres) when the blast occurred. The flight landed about an hour later at Naha airport on Okinawa in southern Japan.

Ramzi Yousef, who was sentenced to life in prison for the Feb. 26, 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York, was convicted in the bombing of the Philippine Airlines flight.

Somalia faces an insurgency perpetrated by the Somali Islamic extremist group al-Shabab, which is responsible for many deadly attacks across the nation.

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AP writers Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade and Joan Lowy in Washington contributed to this report



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