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No Canadians on crashed plane in Laos

A Lao soldier places incense into the ground beside the wreckage left by a Lao Airlines turboprop plane in Pakse in Laos, on Oct. 17, 2013. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Sakchai Lalit

It now appears there were no Canadians on board the Lao Airlines passenger plane that crashed and disappeared into the Mekong River in Laos on Wednesday.

According to the airline, 44 passengers and five crew were on the flight — and a person who was originally listed as a Canadian has now been added to the list of Vietnamese nationals.

The ATR-72 turboprop, on a flight from the capital Vientiane, crashed as it prepared to land in stormy weather at Pakse Airport in southern Laos.

As of Friday morning only 17 bodies had been found, said Transport Minister Sommad Pholsena. Relatives of a Chinese victim identified the body Friday, marking the first identification of a body since the crash.

“It’s very difficult to find (bodies) under water,” the openly frustrated transport minister told reporters at the crash site, where the rescue operation awaited the arrival of more help. “If we could find (the plane), we would have found it already.”

Thailand, which lost five nationals in the crash, is deeply involved in the search, providing skilled manpower that its poorer neighbour lacks.

Thai Tranpsport Minister Chadchart Sittipunt said the Thai navy initially sent scuba divers but their work was complicated by strong currents, deep water of up to 10 metres and poor visibility in the muddy river. He said a Thai forensics team was due to arrive later Friday to help identify bodies as well as Thai navy trawlers to sweep the river with nets to try to locate the fuselage.

“We think the plane broke into two pieces. The tail of the plane contains the black box,” Chadchart said in a telephone interview after meeting with his Lao counterpart in Pakse. “It is believed that many bodies of the passengers are still stuck in the plane, or else they would have surfaced on the river.”

He said a team of Singaporean experts was flying in Friday with equipment that can help locate the so-called black box, or flight data recorder that stores technical data from the flight and records pilot conversations.

France’s accident investigation agency said in a statement that it was sending four investigators to help Laos with the probe into the cause of the crash. The statement said the team would work with technical advisers from ATR, the French-Italian manufacturer of the aircraft, which has said it delivered the plane to Lao Airlines in March.

Lao Airlines has said the plane ran into extremely bad weather as it prepared to land at Pakse Airport. No further details on the investigation or circumstances of the crash have been released. The crash occurred about seven kilometres from the airport.

The passengers included 16 Lao nationals, seven French, six Australians, five Thais, three Koreans, three Vietnamese and one person each from China, Malaysia, Taiwan and the United States.

The area where the plane crashed is off the main tourist circuit in Laos but known for its remote Buddhist temples, nature treks and waterfalls.

Tourism has become a major source of income for Laos in the past decade. In 2012, the country received more than 3.3 million foreign tourists who generated total revenue of more than US$513 million.