chhuk district, Kampot province – A plane carrying more than 20 people disappeared en route from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville on Monday morning, with officials fearing it had crashed in Kampot province.
The Soviet-made Antonov An-24 plane was operated by the accident-prone Progress Multitrade Co and was carrying four Cambodians and 13 South Korean passengers, said PMT Director Sar Sareth. As well as several Cambodian crew members, three passengers from the Czech Republic and a Russian pilot were also on board, said Him Sarun, cabinet chief for the State Secretariat of Civil Aviation.
Helicopters scoured the Kampot area until nightfall but were unable to locate the missing plane, officials said.
Deputy Kampot Governor Khoy Khun Hua, who is in charge of the search mission in Trapaing Klaing commune, said around 100 RCAF soldiers had been assigned to find the aircraft.
“The search began here after local villagers reported hearing the noise of a plane and a loud explosion this morning,” he told reporters. “The search will go into the night. The problem is there are two areas where the plane is reported to have crashed. One is in this area of Kampot. Another is in an area of Sihanoukville,” he added. “We will search until we find them.”
The Defense Ministry, the State Secretariat for Civil Aviation and the National Committee for Disaster Management were all involved in the search, officials said. Officials said Nhim Vanda, a CPP lawmaker and first vice president of the NCDM, was leading one of the search parties in Chhuk district late into Monday night.
General Seoung Samnang, chief of the airforce under RCAF, said a helicopter search would begin again this morning.
Sinn Chan Sereyvutha, director of planning and policy at the State Secretariat for Civil Aviation, said the disappearance was due to bad weather, not technical problems with the aircraft.
“We don’t know yet if it crashed into a mountain or what,” he said. “It was not a machinery matter. It was a weather matter,” he added.
South Korean Ambassador Shin Hyun-suk traveled to Chhuk on Monday evening, said Jang Gon-jong, counselor at the South Korean Embassy. The 13 South Koreans on board were part of an organized tour group, he said, adding that he had no information on what the ambassador had found.
“If there is no fire on the airplane, we hope that there are some people alive, but we don’t have information on that,” he said, adding that it is difficult to separate fact from rumor in the case.
The plane took off from Siem Reap International Airport at around 10 am and was supposed to arrive at Sihanoukville’s Kang Keng airport at around 11 am, Sar Sareth said. Sar Sareth could not be contacted for further comment on Monday evening.
The plane dropped off the radar in heavy rains approximately 32 km outside Siem Reap, said Sreu Sophon, a staffer at Sihanoukville airport. He added that PMT operates three flights per week between Siem Reap and Sihanoukville.
PMT has a checkered safety record.
In November 2005, almost 60 terrified passengers fled a PMT-chartered aircraft owned by the now-defunct Royal Phnom Penh Airways after it skidded off the runway while landing in Ratanakkiri province.
Sar Sareth announced the following day that PMT would continue to fly four times per week to the province, and blamed Royal Phnom Penh Airways for the accident. Although PMT had sold the tickets, Royal Phnom Penh Airways had provided crew and aircraft for the flight.
Police said at the time that the plane had been carrying four children and three adults more than the number of seats, though Sar Sareth denied this was the case.
“If it was my pilot landing, there would have been no problem,” he said at the time.
The following month, the UN banned its employees from flying with PMT, citing what it called an unacceptable safety record. Sar Sareth would later say the ban was an injustice, adding: “The UN announcement damaged my company’s image, but now I think people know the truth.”
PMT also experienced difficulties in May 2006, when civil aviation authorities issued a warning to the company for failing to report within 24 hours a mid-flight engine failure, which had forced a plane to return to Phnom Penh.
However, on Jan 15, when Sihanoukville’s airport reopened for business and resumed its first scheduled commercial flights since the early 1980s, its first arrival was a PMT-operated plane carrying government officials from Siem Reap.
“My airplane is safe to fly,” Sar Sareth said at the time.
(Reporting by Kay Kimsong and Emily Lodish in Phnom Penh and Yun Samean and Kevin Doyle in Kampot)