At least seven French among dead in Laos plane crash

PARIS (AFP) - At least seven French citizens were among those killed when a Lao Airlines plane carrying 44 people crashed in southern Laos on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.

In a statement, Mr Fabius said he had learned of the deaths with "deep shock and great sadness" and that France was rushing embassy officials to the site of the crash.

Laos officials informed Thailand that the plane carrying 39 passengers and five crew went down around 8km from the airport in Champasak province in southern Laos, said Thai foreign ministry spokesman Sek Wannamethee.

"I can now confirm, according to our reports, that all 44 people on board have died, including five Thai," he said.

An official at the South Korean embassy in Bangkok told Yonhap news agency that three of their nationals were also among the dead.

Pakse is a hub for tourists travelling to more remote areas in southern Laos.

A Lao Airline official in Vientiane confirmed the crash, but was unable to provide further details of casualties.

She said the plane had set off from Vientiene on time at 2.45pm local time and was supposed to arrive in Paske just over an hour later.

Thailand's English language Bangkok Post reported that the plane had crashed into the Mekong River in bad weather at it tried to land at Pakse airport.

It said the crash had occurred at 4pm local time.

Pictures on Thai television showed a small plane, half submerged in the river, with what appeared to be bodies lying on the banks.

A spokesman from aircraft manufacturer ATR in France confirmed the crash and said that the state-owned Lao Airlines flight was one of its twin-engine turboprop ATR-72 planes.

Founded in 1976, the carrier operates a fleet of ATR-72 turboprop, Airbus A320 and Chinese-made MA60 planes, serving domestic airports and destinations in China, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, according to its website.

It has a chequered safety record.

Eight people died when a plane operated by the airline - then called Lao Aviation - crashed in remote mountains in the northeast of the country in October 2000.