Malawi Vice President Saulos Chilima among 10 killed in plane crash

The aircraft debris was found after a day of searching in thickly forested mountains.

Malawi’s Vice President Saulos Chilima was killed in a plane crash along with nine other people on board, President Lazarus Chakwera has announced, after searchers found the wreckage of the aircraft in a fog-cloaked forest.

The remains of the military plane were located on Tuesday in a mountainous area in the north of the country, a day after it went missing in bad weather.

“The search and rescue team have found the aircraft … completely destroyed with no survivors, as all passengers on board were killed on impact,” President Lazarus Chakwera said in a televised address to the nation.

“Words cannot describe how heartbreaking this is,” he said, calling the crash a “terrible tragedy”.

INTERACTIVE_Malawi vice president dies in plane crash_JUNE11_2024-1718109461
[Al Jazeera]

Seven passengers, including former first lady Shanil Dzimbiri, who was married to ex-President Bakili Muluzi, and three military crew members were on board. The group was heading to the northern town of Mzuzu to attend the funeral of a former justice minister.

The plane left the capital, Lilongwe, at about 9am [07:00  GMT] on Monday but failed to make its scheduled landing at Mzuzu international airport some 370km (230 miles) to the north about 45 minutes later.

“As the plane approached Mzuzu, the control tower there – the government says – told the aircraft it couldn’t land because of the bad weather and that it should turn around and return to Lilongwe,” Al Jazeera’s Malcolm Webb, reporting from outside Chilima’s house in Lilongwe, said.

“It was after that the plane disappeared from radars and communication was lost which led to the search beginning,” he added, noting that rescuers faced major challenges due to the poor visibility and the remoteness of the area in which the aircraft went missing.

The remains of the deceased were brought to Lilongwe in a military plane on Tuesday evening, Webb said. Funeral arrangements would be announced later.

‘Deeply shocked’

The AFP news agency reported that photographs shared by a member of the military rescue team showed army personnel standing on a foggy slope near debris bearing the registration number of the Dornier 228-202K aircraft operated by the Malawi Army Air Wing.

Chakwera said he had previously flown on the same aircraft for similar trips. The crew had successfully operated it just hours before the accident, he added.

“And yet, despite the track record of the aircraft and the experience of the crew, something terrible went wrong with that aircraft on its flight back to Lilongwe, sending it crashing down,” he said.

First elected vice president in 2014, Chilima was a widely loved figure in Malawi, particularly among young people.

“I am deeply shocked and I am mourning. Saulos was like a son to me,” former President Joyce Banda told AFP.

“This country has lost a genius; we have lost a champion who was an expert in commerce and industry and he is one who believed that the private sector is the engine for growth.

“Unfortunately for me, I have to be personal as well, because he was like my son.”

In the 2019 election, Chakwera had stood as presidential candidate for the Malawi Congress Party, and Chilima for the rival United Transformation Movement.

Both lost, but the vote was annulled over polling irregularities and when a new election was held in June 2020, the pair campaigned and won as presidential and vice-presidential running mates.

But, in 2022, Chilima was stripped of his powers after being arrested and charged with corruption over a bribery scandal involving a British-Malawian businessman. Chilima denied wrongdoing and last month, a court dropped the charges and he resumed his official duties.

“Chilima was a good man, a devoted father and husband, a patriotic citizen who served his country with distinction and a formidable vice president,” Chakwera said. “I consider it one of the greatest honours of my life to have had him as my deputy and counsellor for the past four years.”

Condolences poured in from around the world with the African Union, the European Union, the United States and others expressing sadness at the news.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies