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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 August 2005, 14:29 GMT 15:29 UK
Grim find at Venezuela crash site
Wreckage from crash

Investigators in Venezuela have been combing the grisly wreck of a Colombian plane which crashed on Tuesday killing all 160 people on board.

Recovery teams waded knee-deep in mud caused by heavy rains, finding mutilated bodies and body parts.

It is unclear what caused the loss of the plane with its 152 passengers, all French nationals, and Colombian crew.

France said it could take time to identify the passengers' bodies because of the state in which they were found.

"The conditions in which we are recovering the remains signify a difficult task in recognising and especially a difficult task in identifying the victims," said French Foreign Minister Philip Douste-Blazy.

There is little left of the aircraft, which crashed at a cattle ranch near the border with Colombia, except for its tail which was left standing alone.

"It's really terrible, I can't describe it - there are bodies mutilated, in pieces, there is practically nothing left out there," local mayor Alfonso Marquez was quoted as telling television reporters by phone.

Authorities said earlier they had found one of the two black box data recorders from the flight.

Holiday charter flight

The plane was returning to the French Caribbean island of Martinique from Panama.

Graphic of an MD-82 airliner

It was owned by Colombia's West Caribbean Airways and had been chartered by Martinique tour company Globe Trotters.

The victims were mainly Martinique government officials returning home from a holiday with their families.

It emerged that the MD-82 had passed a "complete inspection" by Colombian authorities on Monday.

The aircraft had also been inspected twice by French authorities in Martinique and given the all-clear, French Transport Minister Dominique Perben said.

France has opened a crisis centre for relatives of the victims.

French President Jacques Chirac described the crash as a "shocking catastrophe", and offered his condolences to families and friends.

Air traffic controllers lost contact with the plane soon after the pilot reported engine problems and requested permission for an emergency landing.

The plane came down near the town of Machiques, 836km (520 miles) west of Caracas, between 0300 and 0345 local time (between 0700 and 0745 GMT) on Tuesday.

Local farmers reported seeing it in flames before the impact.

'Very rare'

Aviation experts say simultaneous mechanical failure in two engines is very uncommon.

"A double engine failure is incredibly, incredibly rare," one expert, Mark Welsh, told the BBC News website.

He said twin engine failure in an aircraft could be caused either by contaminated fuel or a maintenance malfunction.

West Caribbean Airways was set up in 2000 to provide low-cost flights within Colombia and to the Caribbean region, according to the company website.

This is the second incident this year involving the airline. In March a flight taking off from the Colombian island of Providencia crashed, killing eight people.

In pictures: Venezuela plane crash
17 Aug 05 |  In Pictures
Regions and territories: Martinique
12 May 05 |  Country profiles
Air disasters timeline
14 Aug 05 |  Europe

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