Monsoon hampers Pakistan black box search

 Monsoon rain and clouds on Thursday hampered the search for the black box of a Pakistani airliner that slammed into hilly woodland killing all 152 people on board, the nation's worst aviation disaster.

The Airblue passenger jet crashed in a ball of flames, disintegrating in the forested Margalla Hills overlooking the Pakistani capital in heavy rain and poor visibility on Wednesday while trying to land after flying from Karachi.

Pakistan observed a day of mourning, but questions focused increasingly on why the pilot had been flying the Airbus 321 so low over the craggy hills in a restricted flight zone while making his approach to land.

Pakistani rescue workers search at the site of the wreckage of a crashed passenger plane on the day after the accident in The Margalla Hills on the outskirts of Islamabad.
Pakistani rescue workers search at the site of the wreckage of a crashed passenger plane on the day after the accident in The Margalla Hills on the outskirts of Islamabad.

Helicopters were grounded because of poor visibility, rain and clouds, and the black box had yet to be located, officials said.

Investigators hope the flight data recorder will give clues to the fate of the 10-year-old Airbus, which was piloted by an experienced captain.

Officials called off the search for human remains and civil aviation teams left the crash site around dusk.

"So far we could not find the black box, heavy rain continued at the crash site, the terrain is also very slippery," Civil Aviation Authority spokesman Pervez George told AFP.

He could not say if the search would resume on Friday.

"It all depends on the weather. We are not sure when the weather will allow us to resume the search," he said.

At least one relative arrived at the base camp Thursday saying he wanted to look for the remains of his brother, but was turned away.

"We told him the terrain is difficult and the weather bad. Even rescue teams find it difficult to reach the crash site. We also told him the remains had been taken to the hospital. He then left," said Islamabad city administration official Rawal Khan.

Two Americans, an Austrian-born businessman, five children and two babies were among the 152 people on board flight ED 202.

Junaid Ameen, head of Pakistan's Civil Aviation Authority, called on rescue teams not to touch the wreckage, which could be invaluable in determining whether a technical fault or bad weather was to blame.

A team from European company Airbus was to assist with the investigation, he said, refusing to speculate on reports that air traffic control may have asked the pilot to divert.

"It is the prerogative of the pilot to decide, keeping the situation in view. The air traffic controller can only advise him.

"The incident shows that the pilot was in an emergency-like situation that led him to enter the restricted area," he said, refusing to comment further.

The plane broke apart in a gorge between two hills, scattering debris across hillsides enveloped in cloud and located some distance from the nearest road.

It was the worst aviation tragedy on Pakistani soil in history, piling more woes on a country on the frontline of the war on Al-Qaeda and where Islamist militant bombers have killed more than 3,570 people in the past three years.

Pakistani flags flew at half mast from all public buildings out of respect for the dead. Businesses took out advertisements in the national press to honour colleagues who were killed or to express condolences.

US President Barack Obama offered his "deepest condolences". UN chief Ban Ki-moon said he was "deeply saddened" and China's President Hu Jintao also conveyed his condolences.

Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira told reporters that the remains of 115 bodies had been recovered and that it could take up to a week to identify the most charred remains, while urging relatives to be patient.

"It is a tragedy, a great tragedy. The cause of the crash is a technical issue and anything said about the cause at this time is speculation. Everything will be clear after the inquiry," Kaira said.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters that 66 bodies had been handed over to relatives so far. Authorities set up an office to collect blood samples from relatives in order to identify remains with DNA tests.

Airblue, one of Pakistan's most respected airlines, was tight-lipped about any possible technical fault or pilot error.

Reports that the pilot was told to take another route were mere speculation, company spokesman Raheel Ahmad told AFP.

The only deadlier civilian plane crash involving a Pakistani jet occurred when a PIA Airbus A300 crashed into a cloud-covered hillside on approach to the Nepalese capital Kathmandu in 1992, killing 167 people.

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