Twenty-six people were missing and feared dead after a plane crashed in eastern Congo (search), an aviation official said Thursday.

The plane disappeared shortly after takeoff Wednesday and was found later by U.N. helicopters in the dense forests near Walungu, said Raymond Sangara, coordinator of Congo's civil aviation authority.

All 21 passengers aboard were Congolese traders, including women and children, said Sangara. The pilot was Russian and the four crew members were Ukrainian, he said.

Sangara said authorities feared all had died, but a search for any survivors and the recovery of the dead would soon begin.

The plane had lost contact with the radio tower three minutes after leaving the eastern town of Goma. It was bound for Kindu, some 240 miles to the southwest.

Walungu is about 75 miles south of Goma, and farther east of the flight path.

On Monday, militiamen killed 18 people and kidnapped 50 others in Ninja, an area some nine miles north of Walungu.

"I know there is fighting in this region, but we can't confirm if the plane was shot down," said Sangara, speaking by telephone from Goma. "But anything is possible."

Sangara said he asked U.N. and government troops to help comb the dense forests for survivors.

Many rickety aircraft, often castoffs from old Soviet-bloc nations, are used in Congo, a vast central African nation the size of Western Europe.

Few passable roads traverse Congo after decades of war and corrupt rule, forcing the country's deeply impoverished people to rely on often-unsafe boats and planes.

Earlier this month, an Antonov-26 (search) clipped a treetop during its landing approach and crashed in central Congo, killing 10 of the 11 people aboard.

In December 2003, an Antonov-26 plowed into a crowded market at the end of a runway in a northeastern town, killing 33 in the plane and on the ground.