Updated: 02/16/2014 21:59 | By Agence France-Presse

Passenger plane carrying 18 missing in Nepal

Rescuers in Nepal's mountainous west searched on foot Sunday for a missing Nepal Airlines plane carrying 18 people, as officials called off a helicopter hunt due to poor visibility.


Passenger plane carrying 18 missing in Nepal

Aerial view of the Himalayas seen from Pokhara, some of 200 kms west of Kathamndu, taken December 4, 2007 from an ultra-light aircraft - by Prakash Mathema

The plane carrying 15 passengers including an infant and three crew lost contact with air traffic controllers shortly after taking off from the popular tourist town of Pokhara, airline officials and police said.

The aircraft from the state-run carrier was travelling to the town of Jumla, 353 kilometres (220 miles) west of Kathmandu, when air traffic controllers lost contact.

It left Pokhara at 1.30 pm and disappeared 15 minutes later, police spokesman Ganesh KC told AFP. 

One of the passengers is from Denmark, said airline spokesman Ram Hari Sharma. 

The rest of those on board -- including Manab Sejuwal, a local politician from the ruling Nepali Congress party -- are from Nepal.

More than 150 police are taking part in the search, which is now focused on the hilly district of Arghakhanchi, 226 kilometres west of the capital, said local official Govinda Panthi.

Heavy rain hampered earlier efforts with two helicopters forced to turn back because of bad weather, said Bimlesh Lal Karna, chief air traffic controller at the country's largest airport in Kathmandu.

"The weather was not bad at the time the plane went missing... it worsened later on," Karna told AFP. 

"We have now stopped the helicopter search. But the search on foot will continue until we find the plane." 

Police fanned out across villages in the remote region, trekking uphill to locate the missing aircraft.

The incident again raises concerns about the Himalayan nation's aviation sector, which has come under fire from international authorities after a series of fatal accidents.

The European Union in December banned all the country's airlines from flying to the EU.

Nepal, which counts tourism as a major contributor to its economy, has suffered a number of air crashes in recent years, which have usually been attributed to inexperienced pilots, poor management and inadequate maintenance.

A Chinese tourist and a local pilot were killed when an ultra-light aircraft crashed into a hill in Pokhara last October.

Last May 21 people including eight Japanese tourists were hurt when a small plane skidded off an airport runway in northern Nepal and plunged into a river.

Fifteen people were killed at the same airport in May 2012 when a plane carrying Indian pilgrims crashed into a mountain.

In September 2012 19 people, including seven Britons and four Chinese, were killed after an Everest-bound plane crashed minutes after taking off from Kathmandu, in an accident which the government blamed on a "panic-stricken" pilot.

At the time of the blacklisting last year, EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas said the country's safety record "does not leave us any other choice".

Government officials said the ban was "unfortunate" and came after months spent on upgrading safety and monitoring aircraft.

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