HAVANA (Cuba) • A Cuban airliner crashed and burned moments after take-off from Havana, killing nearly all the 114 people on board.
Friday's disaster involving a nearly 40-year-old plane was one of the worst airline crashes in Cuba, which has been struggling to operate with a decrepit fleet of planes that it has blamed partly on the long-standing economic embargo imposed by the United States.
As emergency responders rushed to the scene, footage from the crash site showed the crushed fuselage, seemingly ripped in pieces, among thick vegetation as firefighters doused it with hoses. A crowd rushed in and pulled at least one person from the tangled remains.
Mr Carlos Alberto Martinez, director of Havana's Calixto Garcia hospital, told Reuters that four victims were taken there but one died. The other three, all women, were in serious condition, he said.
State television said the flight had been headed to Holguín, on the island's eastern part. The Boeing 737 - leased by Cubana de Aviación, a state-run Cuban airline - went into service in 1979, according to the International Civil Aviation Organisation, making it one of the oldest 737s still in commercial operation.
The plane crashed at 12.08pm, just after it had left Jose Martí International Airport, Cuba's state newspaper, Granma, reported on its website. The cause was unknown.
Granma said the flight, DMJ 0972, carried 105 people, including at least five children. The plane also carried nine crew members; five of them were Mexican, according to Mexican officials.
Cuban state media initially said all the people on board were foreigners but later reversed itself, saying most of the passengers were Cubans. Two of the victims were Argentinians, Argentina's Foreign Ministry said on Friday night.
Cuba's new President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who visited the scene, said an investigation has been opened into the disaster, and that its findings would be made public as soon as possible.
Former president Raul Castro sent condolences to families of the victims of the "catastrophic accident", a statement read, as Russian President Vladimir Putin and a string of Latin American leaders also expressed sympathy.
A US State Department official said the agency was not aware of any request for US assistance at this time, but the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration had offered to assist in the investigation.
The State Department has spoken with the Cuban ambassador to offer condolences, the official said.
The Boeing 737-201 was leased from a small Mexican company called Damojh, according to the Mexican government.
A statement from the Mexican Secretary of Transportation said that as recently as November, the aircraft had been inspected as part of an annual programme and that the planes inspected had passed a safety test administered by the government agency.
Cuba declared an official period of mourning from 6am yesterday to noon today, during which the flag would be flown at half-mast outside state and military institutions.
Cubana de Aviación has struggled to overcome a reputation for poor safety after a string of crashes left dozens of people dead in the late 1990s. In the worst-ever Cubana disaster, a Soviet-made Ilyushin-62M passenger plane crashed near Havana in 1989, killing all 126 people on board.
NYTIMES, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE