Investigators from Venezuela, Colombia and France have converged on a remote hillside in western Venezuela where a Colombian jetliner crashed, killing all 160 people on board.
Forensic scientists in Maracaibo were busy on Wednesday identifying 135 bodies recovered from the wreckage on a marshy area near the Colombian border.
The difficult terrain would delay finding the rest of the bodies, rescue officials said.
The chartered plane was carrying 152 French school friends from a holiday in Panama to their home on the French Caribbean island of Martinique, when it crashed after the pilot reported that both engines had failed.
Eight crew members, all Colombians, also perished in the crash.
Flight boxes found
One of the black flight box recorders from the McDonnell-Douglas MD-82 jet was found at the crash site in the remote Sierra de Perija mountains. Investigators hope it will yield clues to one of the worst plane crashes in South American history.
It was the second crash in five months involving Colombia's West Caribbean Airways, a low-cost carrier launched in 1998 that is in financial trouble.
This is the second accident in five
months involving the carrier
Venezuelan Interior Minister Jesse Chacon said the airliner crashed between 3.30am and 3.45am on Tuesday, shortly after the pilot reported trouble with both engines and requested permission to land in Venezuela.
The plane "started to fall at a speed of 2100 metres a minute", the minister said on state television.
People in the town of Machique watched the explosion in horror.
"What I saw was an enormous ball of fire that was falling and falling until you could hear a loud explosion," one witness told local radio.
Officials could not confirm that the jet was on fire when it crashed.
Initial reports from French authorities said the plane was carrying 153 French citizens, but Gertrude Romain, a retired teacher living in Martinique, said she had missed the flight because her son had fallen ill.
"This morning my husband was saying that our friends would be able to give us their impressions of the trip. Then we heard the news," said Romain, who regularly goes on holiday with a group of former schoolmates.
French President Jacques Chirac
said he was deeply saddened
"I'm devastated," she added.
French President Jacques Chirac said he was "deeply saddened" by the crash, which he called a "shocking catastrophe."
Plane checked twice
The plane's co-pilot, David Munoz, was only 21 but had flown 1000 hours, according to his father.
"My son always told us that he flew with confidence because these planes were cared for," Elkin Munoz told Colombia's Radio Caracol.
In Paris, French Transport Minister Dominique Perben said the plane had been checked twice this year by authorities in Martinique who did not detect any problems.
The plane's co-pilot, David Munoz,
21, had flown 1000 hours
"Inspections were not the cause," Raymond Dupont, interim head of Martinique's civil aviation authority, told Radio France Internationale.
Lordlys Ramos, chief airline accident investigator for the Ministry of Infrastructure, said that investigators from Venezuela and Colombia were on the scene and that a team from France was arriving soon.
West Caribbean Airways began as a charter airline but was bought by a Colombian businessman in 2001 and relaunched as a low-cost carrier based in Medellin.
A spokeswoman told AFP the carrier would suspend all flights by the week's end to devote resources to dealing with the crash.
Carrier in debt
Reports filed in Bogota last month indicated that the carrier, which has a subsidiary in Costa Rica, had accumulated a debt of $6 million, or 97 cents for every dollar earned.
The airline had three jets: the McDonnell-Douglas MD-82 that crashed and two MD-81s.
It also had several Czech Let-410 and Franco-Italian ATR-42 turboprops.
In March, another of its planes, a Let-410, crashed minutes after takeoff from the Colombian Caribbean island of Providencia, killing two crew members and six of its 12 passengers. That crash is under investigation.
In July, West Caribbean suspended its flights for a week after US aircraft maker Boeing, which took over McDonnell-Douglas in 1997, asked the airline to conduct maintenance work on its fleet, a Colombian civil aviation official said.