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Malawi’s vice president and nine others killed in plane crash

Saulos Chilima, left, greets government officials at Lillongwe airport (AP)
Saulos Chilima, left, greets government officials at Lillongwe airport (AP)

Malawi’s vice president and nine others have been killed in a plane crash, the country’s president said.

Saulos Chilima was among those who died when the small military plane they were travelling in crashed in bad weather in a mountainous region in the north of the country. Mr Chilima was 51.

President Lazarus Chakwera announced that the wreckage of the plane that went missing on Monday morning had been located after a search of more than 24 hours in thick forests and hilly terrain near the city of Mzuzu.

He said the wreckage was found near a hill and the plane had been “completely destroyed”, with everyone killed on impact.

Malawi vice president Saulos Chilima, left, and his wife Mary disembark from a plane upon his return from South Korea in Lillongwe on Sunday, June 9
Malawi vice president Saulos Chilima, left, and his wife Mary disembark from a plane upon his return from South Korea in Lillongwe on Sunday, June 9 (STR/AP)

It was a “terrible tragedy”, Mr Chakwera said. “Words cannot describe how heartbreaking this is, and I can only imagine how much pain and anguish you all must be feeling.”

He called Mr Chilima “a good man, a devoted father and husband, a patriotic citizen who served his country with distinction and a formidable vice president”.

Mr Chakwera said the victims’ remains were being brought to the southern African nation’s capital, Lilongwe.

The seven passengers included members of Mr Chilima’s staff and security detail along with former first lady Shanil Dzimbiri, the ex-wife of former president Bakili Muluzi. There were three crew members.

Hundreds of soldiers, police officers and forest rangers had searched for the plane since it went missing on Monday at around 10am. while making the 45-minute flight from Lilongwe to Mzuzu, around 230 miles to the north.

The group was travelling to attend the funeral of a former government minister.

Air traffic controllers told the plane not to attempt a landing at Mzuzu’s airport because of bad weather and poor visibility and asked it to turn back to Lilongwe. Air traffic control then lost contact with the aircraft and it disappeared from radar.

Mr Chakwera said the wreckage was found in the Chikangawa Forest south of Mzuzu. Images from the site showed thick fog over the hills and remnants of the plane in an open area near the tree line. The president described the aircraft as a small, propeller-driven plane operated by the Malawian armed forces.

Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera, left, greets people in Lilongwe, where he made an announcement that the vice president and nine others had been killed in a plane crash
Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera, left, greets people in Lilongwe, where he made an announcement that the vice president and nine others had been killed in a plane crash (AP)

Officials with Mr Chilima’s United Transformation Movement political party – a party different from the president’s – criticised the government response as slow and said there was no transponder on the plane, adding this was concerning for an aircraft carrying a high-level delegation.

Mr Chilima and Mr Chakwera had led Malawi under unusual circumstances. They both ran for president in 2019 as opposition candidates but teamed up to challenge election results in court over irregularities, and won.

They then won the rerun of the election — the first time in Africa that a court-overturned election result had resulted in a defeat for the incumbent president.

Mr Chilima had said Mr Chakwera had agreed to step down after his first term and allow him to run for president in next year’s election as part of their alliance. However, Mr Chakwera announced he would run for re-election, and there were signs of friction between the two.

Mr Chilima also had recently faced corruption charges over allegations that he received money in return for influencing the awarding of government procurement contracts for the armed forces and the police. Prosecutors dropped the charges last month. He had denied the allegations.

Mr Chilima had just returned from an official visit to South Korea on Sunday. He was in his second term as vice president after serving from 2014-2019 under former president Peter Mutharika.

The search for the plane prompted an international response. Mr Chakwera said the US, the UK, Norway and Israel had offered assistance and provided “specialised technologies”.

The US embassy in Malawi said it had assisted and offered the use of a Department of Defence small C-12 plane. Malawi also asked neighbours Zambia and Tanzania if they could help.

Malawi, a country of around 21 million people, was ranked as the fourth poorest nation in the world by the World Bank in 2019.