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Bodies of Benin Plane Crash Victims Returned Home to Lebanon - 2003-12-28


The bodies of 78 people who died during an airplane crash in the West African country of Benin have been taken home to Lebanon.

A French military airplane carrying the coffins of 76 Lebanese and two Iranians departed Benin's main city Cotonou on Sunday, after a ceremony honoring the 130 victims of Thursday's crash.

Benin's President Mathieu Kerekou joined hundreds of mourners for the ceremony at Cotonou's airport, where the Beirut-bound plane crashed into the sea shortly after take-off.

It is still unclear what caused the crash, but Lebanese officials say the Lebanese-operated aircraft may have been overloaded. French aviation experts are due in Benin today to help with the investigation.

The plane was carrying about 160 passengers, most of them Lebanese nationals flying home for end of year holidays. Only 21 people are thought to have survived the crash.

Among those killed were 15 Bangladeshi U.N. peacekeepers who were stationed in Sierra Leone and Liberia. The soldiers were also on their way home for the holidays when the plane crashed.

Benin has declared three days of mourning for all the victims starting Saturday. The crashed aircraft belonged to a Lebanese-owned carrier UTA (Union des Transports Africans).

The company is not related to the former French airline, Union des Transports Aeriens, also known as UTA.

Aviation officials in Lebanon say the company had not been licensed in that country because it failed to meet safety requirements. But its planes were allowed to fly after the company registered in Guinea.

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