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Slow going in plane crash search

Officials in Laos say 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 are arriving later 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 plane crashed.

Lao Airlines flight QV301 crashed on 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.

Only 17 bodies have been found, said Lao transport minister Sommad Pholsena. Relatives of a Chinese victim identified the body today, marking the first identification since the crash.

"It's very difficult to find (bodies) under water," the transport minister told reporters at the crash site. "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 transport minister Chadchart Sittipunt said the Thai navy initially sent scuba divers but their work was complicated by strong currents, deep water of up to 32ft and poor visibility in the muddy river. He said a Thai forensics team was due to arrive to help identify bodies as well as 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," Mr Chadchart said after meeting 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 with equipment that can help locate the so-called "black box", or flight data recorder that stores technical information 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 said it delivered the plane to Lao Airlines in March.

The airline 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 four 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.

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