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Associated Press
Onlookers watch the search operation for the lost Lao Airlines plane on the banks of the Mekong River in Pakse, Laos, Thursday. Rescuers in fishing boats pulled bodies from the muddy river as officials in Laos ruled out finding survivors from the plane that crashed in stormy weather, killing 49 people from 11 countries. A debris field on the riverbank suggests the boats are very close to where the ill-fated flight must have hit the water.

Search after Laos crash lacks manpower, equipment

Associated Press
Thai rescuers unload a plane crash victim's body from a boat in Pakse, Laos Friday, Oct. 18, 2013.

– Exasperated officials in Laos said Friday they lack the equipment and manpower to locate the fuselage and more than 30 bodies still unaccounted for two days after a plane crashed and disappeared into the Mekong River.

International experts were arriving later in the day from France, Singapore and Thailand to help with forensics and locating the flight data recorder, which could help explain why the virtually new Lao Airlines ATR-72 turboprop crashed.

Lao Airlines flight QV301 crashed Wednesday as it prepared to land in stormy weather at Pakse Airport in southern Laos. All 49 people on board, more than half of whom were foreigners, are presumed dead.

As of Friday morning only 17 bodies had been found, said Lao 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 neighbor 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 32 feet 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 4 miles from the airport.

According to the airline, 44 passengers and five crew were on the flight. 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. A person who had been listed as a Canadian was instead added to the list of Vietnamese.

The passengers included foreign tourists and expatriates working in Laos.

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 $513 million.

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