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Lao Airlines plane crashes into Mekong river, killing 44

BANGKOK (Reuters) - A Lao Airlines plane flying in stormy weather crashed into the Mekong river in southern Laos on Wednesday, killing all 44 people on board, among them nationals of 10 countries.

The virtually new ATR-72 turboprop plane flying from the capital Vientiane crashed at about 4.10 p.m. (0910 GMT) just eight kilometers (five miles) short of its destination Pakse, which is near the borders of both Thailand and Cambodia.

The airline said in a statement it had yet to determine the cause of the crash, in which a senior aviation official said the tail end of Typhoon Nari may have been a factor.

Those killed were mostly Lao nationals. But seven French nationals were also killed, the country's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.

South Koreans, Australians, Canadians, Taiwanese, Chinese, Burmese and Vietnamese and five Thais were also among the dead, said Thailand's foreign ministry spokesman, Sek Wannamethee.

Several officials confirmed none of the passengers or crew survived.

Lao Airlines is the national carrier of the communist state and has operated since 1976. Its aircraft carried 658,000 passengers last year and it has a fleet of just 14 planes, mostly propeller-driven.

Southern Laos was affected by Typhoon Nari, which hit the region on Tuesday killing 13 people in the Philippines and five in Vietnam.

Vestiges of the storm might have caused the plane to crash, Yakua Lopangka, Director General of the Department of Civil Aviation, told the Vientiane Times newspaper.

Thai television showed a photograph of the plane partly submerged in shallow water on a stretch of the Mekong, the tail severed, next to a handful of rescuers in small boats.

State-run news agency KPL quoted a witness saying strong gusts of wind blew the plane off course and rescue attempts were complicated by a lack of roads near the crash site.

Lao Airlines has six ATR-72 planes, a European turbo-prop aircraft co-manufactured by Airbus parent EADS and Italian aerospace firm Finmeccanica.

In a statement, ATR said the aircraft that crashed was its latest ATR 72-600 model, designed to seat between 68 and 74 people. It had left the production line in March this year.

ATR said Laos authorities would lead an investigation into the crash, whose cause had not been determined.

Lao Airlines operates on seven domestic routes and has international flights to China, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore.

(Reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Martin Petty; additional reporting by John Irish and Tim Hepher in Paris; editing by John Stonestreet and Tom Pfeiffer)

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