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Pakistani PIA plane carrying 99 crashes in Karachi, many feared dead

KARACHI (Reuters) – An Airbus plane with 99 on board crashed into a residential area of the Pakistani city of Karachi on Friday while on approach to the airport, with at least one passenger surviving but many others feared dead, officials said.

Smoke billowed from the scene where the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flight came down, some roofs had caved in, and debris lay scattered in streets as ambulances rushed through chaotic crowds.

At least one passenger on fight PK 8303, a banker, survived and spoke to officials in hospital, provincial government spokesman Abdur Rashid Channa said.

“Thank you so much. God has been merciful,” the passenger said, according to the government statement.

Seemin Jamali, executive director at the nearby Jinnah Hospital, said 17 dead bodies and six wounded people had been brought in. There were no estimates of casualties on the ground in the area where the plane crashed.

“The aeroplane first hit a mobile tower and crashed over houses,” witness Shakeel Ahmed said near the site, a few kilometres short of the airport.

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The Airbus A320 was flying from the eastern city of Lahore to Karachi in the south just as Pakistan was resuming domestic flights in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the aircraft tracking website FlightRadar24.

The pilot told air traffic controllers the plane had lost engine power, according to liveatc.net, which has released aircraft recordings in the past.

“We are returning back, sir, we have lost engines,” a man was heard saying in a recording released by the website. Reuters could not authenticate the recording and there was no immediate comment on it from the airline, Airbus or the aviation authority.

“The last we heard from the pilot was that he has some technical problem,” the state carrier’s spokesman, Abdullah H. Khan, said in a video statement.

“He was told from the final approach that both the runways were ready where he can land, but the pilot decided that he wanted to do (a) go-round … It is a very tragic incident.”

MAYDAY CALL

One senior civil aviation official told Reuters it appeared the plane had been unable to lower its wheels for landing due to a technical fault, but it was too early to determine the cause.

Aviation safety experts say air crashes typically have multiple causes and warn that it is far too early to understand them within the first hours or days.

Army and rescue services rushed to the area, which appeared to be densely populated. Footage showed cars on fire.

“The pilot was told that he could land at the Karachi airports, he was told that both the runways were ready, but he took a circle and gave a ‘Mayday’ call before the crash,” another civil aviation official, Abdul Sattar Khohar, told Reuters.

“We don’t know yet whether he gave any reason at the time of the Mayday call.”

In Pakistan’s most recent deadly crash, 47 people died when a PIA jet smashed into a mountainside in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province in 2016. The country’s worst plane disaster was in 2010, when an AirBlue flight crashed near Islamabad, killing 152 people.

Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted: “Shocked & saddened by the PIA crash. Am in touch with PIA CEO Arshad Malik, who has left for Karachi & with the rescue & relief teams on ground as this is the priority right now.

“Immediate inquiry will be instituted. Prayers & condolences go to families of the deceased.”

The Airbus first flew in 2004 and was fitted with engines built by CFM International, co-owned by General Electric and France’s Safran, according to FlightRadar24.

It was on its sixth flight after returning to service following a widespread airline industry grounding in March over the coronavirus crisis, the website added.

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World News

Pakistan extends coronavirus lockdown, some industries to reopen in phases

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Tuesday announced a two-week extension to the nationwide shutdown to curb the COVID-19 spread, but said some industries would reopen in phases.

The first industry to reopen would be construction, Khan said in a televised address to the nation.

“That lockdown, those restrictions on gatherings will continue for another two weeks,” Khan said.

Pakistan, which has already completed a three week lockdown, has reported 5,716 cases with 96 deaths.

The World Bank has warned that Pakistan is expected to fall into recession in fiscal 2020/21. Khan has sought debt relief from international lenders to combat the pandemic.

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Pakistan court commutes death sentence of key accused in Pearl killing, acquits three

KARACHI (Reuters) – A Pakistani court has commuted the death sentence of the main person accused in the 2002 kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, and acquitted three co-accused in the matter, two lawyers told Reuters on Thursday.

At least four people were convicted in connection with Pearl’s murder, including British-born Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was sentenced to death in 2002 for masterminding the murder. He has been in jail for 18 years awaiting the outcome of an appeal.

“The court has commuted Omar’s death sentence to a seven-year sentence,” Khawaja Naveed, the defence lawyer told Reuters by phone. “The murder charges were not proven, so he has given seven years for the kidnapping.”

“Omar has already served 18 years, so his release orders will be issued sometime today. He will be out in a few days,” Naveed said.

A two-member bench of the High Court of Sindh province issued the order in the city of Karachi on Thursday, Naveed said, adding that the three others, who had been serving life-sentences in connection with the case, had been acquitted.

Pearl was investigating Islamist militants in Karachi after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States when he was kidnapped in January 2002.

Video emerged a few weeks later of his murder. He was beheaded.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, was also allegedly involved in Pearl’s killing.

A Sindh prosecutor said he would consider appealing against the court decision.

“We will go through the court order once it is issued, we will probably file an appeal,” Faiz Shah, the provincial prosecutor general, told Reuters via phone.

‘CAN’T STOP RELEASE’

Another lawyer not involved in the case told Reuters that Pakistan would likely have to release all of the accused while any appeal was filed.

“The prosecution cannot stop their release in this case, unless they produce a Supreme Court interim order,” Muhammad Farooq, a lawyer at the Sindh High Court said, adding that the government could seek to keep them detained by using a law related to the maintenance of public order.

“Legally they cannot stop their release in this particular case,” Farooq said.

The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

CNN reported in 2002 that the United States had sought to extradite Sheikh after his arrest in connection with Pearl’s killing.

Sheikh was born in Britain and enjoyed a privileged upbringing before going to study at the London School of Economics.

He was arrested in India in the 1990s for his involvement in the kidnapping of western tourists in 1994 in support of Muslim separatists battling Indian security forces in the disputed Kashmir region.

He was one of three men released from an Indian prison after militants hijacked an Indian airliner in late 1999 and flew it to Afghanistan, where the then-ruling Taliban regime helped negotiate an exchange.

Indian police later linked Sheikh to the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, accusing him of involvement in transferring $100,000 to Mohammad Atta, one of the militants who flew airliners into New York’s World Trade Center.

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