96 Killed in Plane Crash Off African Coast

Rescue teams using spotlights searched the cold, dark waters off the West African nation of Benin (searchon Friday in a desperate hunt for survivors of a plane crash that killed at least 96 people, authorities said.

Transport Minister Ahmed Akobi said 82 people died in Thursday's crash, and state radio confirmed 10 more bodies were pulled from the wreckage off the Atlantic Ocean coast overnight. Most of the casualties were Lebanese (search) headed home for Christmas holidays. Thousands of Lebanese immigrants work in West African countries.

At least 24 people survived the accident, Akobi said. But four of them later died at hospitals in the commercial capital, Cotonou (search), state radio said.

With spotlights perched on the beach and flashlights in hand, divers and fishermen searched for survivors through the night, swimming through scattered pieces of luggage, clothes and gift-wrapped presents. Tractors tied chains to parts of the Boeing 727's wreckage, including an engine, in an effort to clear away the wreckage.

By dawn, the bulk of the destroyed aircraft still lay in the water, some 100 yards from the beach.

It was unclear exactly how many people were aboard the chartered aircraft. Akobi said the plane's manifest listed 156 passengers and an unknown number of crew.

Before dawn, about 50 Lebanese nationals gathered along the shore, crowding around bodies -- pulled from the water one by one -- to identify friends or relatives.

"This is all too much for me to handle," said Akim Toufik.

The death toll could rise as rescue work continued. An Associated Press reporter saw at least 15 bodies and the plane's severed cockpit lay on the beach after midnight.

There was no word on what caused the tragedy. Akobi said rescue teams were searching for the aircraft's black box.

The Boeing lifted off on a sunny Thursday at 2:55 p.m. from the airport in Cotonou, and troubles began right away, said Jerome Dandjinou, a senior airport security official.

"The back of the plane hit a building at the end of the runway. There was a fire and an explosion was heard," Dandjinou told The Associated Press. "The plane exploded and the debris fell into the water." The Atlantic Ocean is about 500 yards from airport tarmac.

The flight originated in the Guinean capital, Conakry, and stopped in Freetown, Sierra Leone, picking up Lebanese along the way. It was bound for Beirut, Lebanese Transportation Minister Najib Mikati said.

An AP reporter on the scene Thursday saw dozens of bodies -- men, women, children and babies -- floating among the plane's wreckage about 150 yards off a Cotonou beach.

A Lebanese survivor, Nabil Hashem, told Al Manar television in Beirut that he was in the back of the plane and was able to swim to safety.

"Those in the front were the most hurt," Hashem said. "May God's mercy fall on them. It was a horrible scene."

Ghabi Koudieh, a Lebanese expatriate in Cotonou, told Al Manar that 90 bodies were pulled out from the sea. At least 80 were Lebanese, he said. Other witnesses said there were about 35 Lebanese survivors.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Jean Obeid was due to fly Thursday night to Benin with an 11-member medical team to bring the injured home. His departure was delayed because of the closure of Cotonou airport.

"This is a catastrophe that touches every house in Lebanon and every Lebanese," he told reporters at Beirut airport.