Foreign Affairs Minister Rogatien Biaou said on Friday 113 of the 163 passengers and crew on board were confirmed dead as a result of the crash.
Twenty-two people survived, Transport Minister Hamid Akobi said earlier on Friday, giving a revised casualty toll from Thursday’s disaster in which a Lebanese-owned Union Tranport Africaines (UTA) carring 156 passengers and seven crew crashed on take-off.
The Boeing 727 had been packed with Lebanese families on their way home for the holiday season when it crashed into the sea off the Benin coast.
Antoine Chaghoury, the brother of Lebanon’s consul general in the Benin capital Cotonou, said: “Ninety-nine percent of the passengers were Lebanese.”
The plane failed to take off properly, skidding down the beachfront runway and smashing into a building before exploding and tumbling nose down into the sea near Cotonou.
Fishermen, navy divers, the army and Red Cross workers
searched the shores of the Gulf of Guinea for survivors and the President of Benin Mathieu Kerekou visited the scene.
The aircraft belonged to Union Transport Africaines (UTA), owned by two Lebanese, and had a carrying capacity of 141 passengers and crew. A Benin government source said it was carrying 156 passengers and seven crew. Earlier, unnamed officials in Beirut said the flight was “overloaded”.
Chaghoury said that UTA has run a weekly flight – with multiple stops – between Beirut and Cotonou for nearly two months.
West Africa has had Lebanese communities for more than a
century, forming the backbone of some economies.
Fishermen and families picnicking on the beach to celebrate the Christmas holiday were first on the scene and began pulling survivors and bodies from the water, witnesses said.
Relatives speak to their relatives
As night fell on the Atlantic coastal state, bodies were still being pulled from the water.
Airplane debris and suitcases were carried onto the sand by crashing waves as anguished Lebanese families waited on shore for news of their loved ones.
Benin airport officials said the plane took off from the Guinean capital Conakry, before making its stop in Cotonou to take on some 60 passengers, including five children.
At Beirut’s International Airport, grief was mixed with hope
as families of passengers on the plane kept vigil and prayed their relatives were among the survivors.
Tearful relatives mingled with others carrying bouquets of flowers. Lebanon’s national carrier Middle East Airlines said it had been asked to send a plane to Cotonou to take on injured
Dismal safety records
Lebanese civil aviation chief Hamdi Shawq said the flight had been expected to arrive in Beirut early on Friday morning, and was due to continue on from there to Dubai.
UTA had been denied a licence to register in Lebanon because it did not fulfill “technical requirements”, Lebanese Transport Minister Najib Mikati said, cited by Lebanese state media.
The company then sought, and was granted, registration in the west African state of Guinea.
Cash-poor African airlines typically have dismal safety records due to the high cost of maintaining aircraft.