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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

170 Feared Dead in Air Disaster

KINSHASA, Congo -- Congo's military investigated Saturday how the cargo doors of a Russian-built transport plane burst open in mid-flight, catapulting possibly scores of passengers to their deaths.

Terrified passengers spoke of how they had gripped ropes and netting for nearly two hours, their muscles aching, while men, women and children were sucked through the gaping hole at the rear of the Ilyushin jet.

"I saw a soldier cradling a baby and a mother with a baby near the door suddenly just being wrenched into the darkness," said Suzanne Mutelo, 39, who survived the ordeal with her two teenage children.

"We were very frightened and held on for all we were worth," Mutelo said in Kinshasa. She was returning to Lubumbashi in the southeast of Congo after visiting her father.

Congolese Defense Minister Irung Awan said Saturday that authorities were seeking to verify a state media report that said 170 people had disappeared, far higher than an official count of 17 issued early Saturday.

Aviation officials, diplomats and survivors all said well over 100 soldiers and civilians had died. If the 170 tally proved correct it would make the freak incident the worst plane accident in Africa since a 1996 crash off the Comoros Islands.

Western diplomats in touch with Congolese officials said they believed the death toll was as high as 180.

Information Minister Kikaya Bin Karubi said the airforce and army were investigating whether the accident was the result of human error or a mechanical problem.

He said he had no idea how many people had been on board the Il-76, which was ferrying troops from Kinshasa to the Democratic Republic of Congo's second city of Lubumbashi.

Karubi said the plane's cargo doors burst open late Thursday at about 3,000 meters. Some reports said it happened at 10,000 meters.

Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Konstantin Khyvrenko said Saturday that the jet was owned by Ukrainian Cargo Airways, a state-owned firm. He said no one was hurt.

But survivors described a harrowing scene.

"People and boxes were crashing into the sides of the plane. Some of them were badly injured. Some on the head, some on the arms," Mutelo said at her father's home in Kinshasa.

"When we landed the majority of the people had disappeared," she said, adding that about 200 people had boarded the plane.

The army and the government often charter cargo planes to transport military personnel and civil servants, many with their families, in the mineral-rich southern province of Katanga.

Travelling overland is not an option for long distances because roads and railways in the vast former Belgian colony are devastated by decades of war and neglect. But planes are often old and poorly maintained, and the safety record is dire.

In the country's worst air disaster, an Antonov-32 plowed into a crowded Kinshasa market place just after takeoff in 1996. At least 350 people were killed.