Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Congo suspends 2 airlines after crash

Congo's government has suspended the licenses of two aviation companies operating in the Central African nation after one of their planes crashed over the weekend, killing a top adviser to President Joseph Kabila and four others.

Minister of Transport Joseph Martin Kitumba said in a statement released late Tuesday that the licenses of Air Katanga Express and Katanga Wings had been suspended as Congolese and American experts investigate the crash of the Gulfstream 3 jet.

The Katanga Express plane went down Sunday as it attempted to land at Bukavu airport in eastern Congo. Among the five bodies pulled out of the wreck was Augustin Katumba Mwanke, described in United States diplomatic cables as "the power behind the throne" in Kabila's administration, according to WikiLeaks.

The plane's two pilots were also killed. There were 10 passengers on board.

The minister announced that a special commission will investigate the causes of the crash. Congo has one of the worst safety records in the world. Just two weeks ago, an Antonov plane crashed after it left the same airport in eastern Congo. Officials found the debris from the destroyed plane around 6 miles (10 kilometers) from the town of Namoya, where it was supposed to land an hour later.

Last July a plane operated by a different airline crashed, killing 85 people on board. The forested country has almost no good roads outside of the capital, forcing people to rely on badly-maintained flights or boats.

Each time, Congolese officials have promised an investigation. The death of the presidential adviser, who on Wednesday was posthumously awarded an honor, may finally prompt a more-in depth review. In addition to Mwanke, who was also the former governor of copper-rich Katanga province, the minister of finance, a provincial governor and one of Kabila's at-large ambassadors were also injured. The three were evacuated to South Africa for treatment.

"Given the urgency and the necessity, an investigative commission has been created and charged with leading an investigation into the probable cause of the accident, and determining responsibility," said the statement.

Congo expert Jason Stearns wrote on his blog that Mwanke's influence cannot be overstated. He had a direct hand in the country's mining contracts.

"He was the mastermind behind crucial financial deals, including most of the big mining deals concluded in the past decade. ... 'No mining contract is signed without Katumba's approval,' is a phrase I heard more than once among Kinshasa businessmen," wrote Stearns, author of a history of Congo's conflict. "Rasputin, Dick Cheney, eminence grise -- these were all epithets applied to Katumba."


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