YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—Five Armenian pilots of a Soviet-built cargo plane and dozens of other people reportedly died on Wednesday when it crashed moments after taking off from the airport in South Sudan’s capital Juba.
News reports from the African nation said that the Antonov-12 plane also carried 18 passengers. All but three of them were said to have died. A Reuters witness saw 41 bodies at the site of the crash along a bank of the White Nile River, suggesting that they included people killed on the ground.
A South Sudanese presidential spokesman told Reuters that the six crew of the plane comprised five Armenians and one Russian.
Armenia’s Foreign Ministry confirmed the five Armenian casualties, citing “preliminary information” from its embassy in Egypt. It identified the killed pilots, including Captain Gevorg Tovmasian, later in the day.
A ministry statement also said that the Antonov-12, which had reportedly gone into service in the Soviet Union in 1971, was registered in Armenia before until handed over to the Tajikistan-based Asia Airways last year. According to the TASS news agency, Asia Airways acquired the plane from an Armenian carrier, Taron Avia, and transferred it to a South Sudanese freight and logistics firm shortly afterwards.
The Juba crash raised to at least 19 the total number of Armenian pilots who have been killed while flying old Soviet-made aircraft in Africa and the Middle East in four incidents reported since 2001. Dozens of Armenians have worked for domestic and foreign airlines carrying out flights there ever since the Soviet collapse, which left many of them without permanent jobs.
The victims include the four Armenian crew of another Antonov-12 that crashed in Sudan in 2003. Five other Armenians died when their heavier cargo plane, Ilyushin-72, skidded off the runway and crashed into houses and a bar in Congo’s capital Brazzaville in 2012.
Six other Armenian pilots landed in a different kind of trouble when they worked in Equatorial Guinea in 2004. They were arrested and handed lengthy prison sentences on dubious coup charges they strongly denied. They were set free after spending more than a year in a notorious local jail.