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Heavy rains delay salvage of crashed Pakistan plane

By Kamran Haider

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Heavy monsoon rains in Islamabad on Thursday hampered recovery efforts at the site of a Pakistani plane crash that killed all 152 people on board a day earlier, a senior police officer said.

The Airbus 321, belonging to private airline AirBlue, crashed on Wednesday into a steep and heavily-wooded hillside in Islamabad shortly before it was due to land after a flight from the southern port city of Karachi.

Thick fog and rainy weather are considered the most likely reasons for the worst aviation accident on Pakistani soil.

Bin Yameen, deputy inspector-general with the Islamabad police, told Reuters the operation to recover the remains of victims could not be resumed due to the heavy rain. Difficulty in accessing the site was also complicating salvage efforts.

"We are waiting for the rain to stop. In such weather, neither helicopters can fly nor rescue workers move up easily.

"We may give it a try but it seems very difficult to carry out such operation in difficult terrain," he said.

Investigators were looking into causes of the crash, said senior Civil Aviation Administration officer Ayaz Jadoon.

"They're going through records and documents, though they couldn't go up because of bad weather," he said, adding the plane's flight data recorder has yet to be recovered.

EVIDENCE WASHING AWAY

The control tower at the airport was sealed off, and radio traffic between the plane and the tower was being examined.

The torrential rain may also damage, or wash away, evidence at the site.

"Time is very precious," the investigation team's head, Khawaja Abdul Majeed, told Dawn News television after arriving in Islamabad late Wednesday from Karachi.

"We have to collect evidence as soon as possible, so we don't have much time."

While Wednesday's crash is the worst aviation accident inside Pakistan, the state-owned airline PIA has had worse disasters. In 1979 and 1992, PIA jets crashed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and Kathmandu, Nepal, killing 156 and 167 people, respectively.

Within Pakistan, the last major aviation accident was in 2006 when a PIA plane crashed near the central city of Multan killing 45 people.

The federal information minister said late on Wednesday rescue workers had been able to recover 115 bodies during a day-long operation at the hard-to-access site.

Some relatives gathered at the city's main Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) hospital to identify bodies.

A hospital official, Tahir Nadeem, said 59 bodies had been identified and taken away by their relatives while the remaining bodies -- mostly in pieces -- have been sent to the morgue.

The government declared a day of mourning on Thursday for the victims.

"My heart and mind are not ready to believe that he has died. I'm still hoping he might call me anytime," civil engineer Nadeem Ahmed told Reuters, as he searched among the bodies at the hospital for his brother. Ahmed did not find his brother's body.

Sarfraz Chaudhry, a retired soldier, was hoping to find body of his sister, Gulzar Bibi, who was one of eight family members on the ill-fated plane.

"She was coming here to attend a funeral of a 90-year-old relative, but nobody knew that she and others would have their last day," he said.

"We have identified six of our dead relatives, but of my sister and one other, we are still searching and hope that we find them."

(Additional reporting by Augustine Anthony in Islamabad; Editing by Chris Allbritton and Miral Fahmy)

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