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20 Believed Dead in Plane Crash in French Polynesia

A small airplane plunged into the sea moments after taking off from the French Polynesian resort island of Moorea, apparently killing all 20 people aboard in the territory's worst-ever plane crash, officials said Friday.

Two Australian tourists, two European Union officials, and a group of Polynesian environmental and tourism officials were among those aboard theTwin Otter DHC6 turboprop when it crashed Thursday, according to the territory's High Commission, which represents France in French Polynesia.

The crash's cause was unclear. No one was believed to have survived the crash, and rescue efforts were called off as night fell, the High Commission said in a statement.

Rescue workers, helped by French navy ships and local fishing boats, recovered the bodies of 16 passengers and the pilot, the territory's No. 2 French official, Jacques Witkowski, said on RTL radio Friday.

He called it French Polynesia's worst-ever airplane accident.

Suitcases bobbed in the lagoon as helicopters circled above and rescue boats, flying the French tricolor, scoured the area. Worried residents gathered on the wharf, clustering around fishing boats as they returned.

Shaken fishermen described seeing the plane crash so quickly that they didn't understand what had happened.

The High Commission said the plane was resting on the sea floor, about 2,300 feet deep.

The plane went down within a minute after takeoff at noon Thursday. The Air Moorea flight was heading for Tahiti, 11 miles away, on what would have been just a seven-minute journey.

The Twin Otter plane was returned to service after a major upgrade in November 2006 and had two new engines, Witkowski said. It was unclear when it first entered service. He would not comment on the crash's possible cause, saying investigators would determine it.

The island of Moorea is a popular resort location prized for its stunning beaches and green hilly peaks. The plane carried out regular flights between Moorea and Tahiti for Air Moorea.

Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said Friday that the two Australians passengers were from Victoria state, but that they had not been identified.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, vacationing in the United States, issued a statement expressing condolences to the families of the victims, and "to all Polynesia, and to the Australian and European authorities."

He ordered the junior minister for France's overseas territories, Christian Estrosi, to travel to Polynesia immediately.