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Saturday, July 20, 2024

Search begins for missing plane carrying Malawi Vice-President and former first lady

They were flying with 8 other people to attend the funeral of a former government minister.

Soldiers are searching mountainous forests near a city in northern Malawi after a military plane carrying the country’s vice president and a former first lady went missing in the area Monday, President Lazarus Chakwera said.

The plane carrying 51-year-old Vice President Saulos Chilima, former first lady Shanil Dzimbiri and eight others left the southern African nation’s capital, Lilongwe, at 9:17 a.m. and had been expected to land 45 minutes later at Mzuzu International Airport, about 370 kilometers (230 miles) to the north.

But air traffic control told it to not attempt a landing and to turn around because of bad weather and poor visibility, Chakwera said in an address broadcast live on state TV channel MBC. Air traffic control lost contact with the aircraft and it disappeared from radar a short time later, he said.“I know this is a heartbreaking situation. I know we are all frightened and concerned. I too am concerned,” Chakwera said.

“But I want to assure you that I am sparing no available resource to find that plane. And I am holding onto every fiber of hope that we will find survivors.”Mzuzu is Malawi’s third biggest city and the capital of the northern region. It lies in a hilly, forested area dominated by the Viphya mountain range, which has vast plantations of pine trees.

The president vowed that search operations would continue through the night and said authorities using telecommunications towers tracked the last known position of the plane to a 10-kilometer (6-mile) radius in one of the plantations. That area was the focus of the Malawi Defense Force search and rescue operation, he said.

“I have given strict orders that the operation should continue until the plane is found,” Chakwera said. Chakwera said the US, the UK, Norway and Israel offered assistance in the search operation and had provided “specialized technologies” that the president hoped would help find the plane sooner.

Chakwera said Dzimbiri, the ex-wife of former President Bakili Muluzi, was also one of the passengers. The group was traveling to attend the funeral of a former government minister. Three of those onboard were the military crew flying the plane, the president said. Chakwera asked Malawians to pray for all those onboard and their families.

Chilima has been vice president since 2020.He was a candidate in the 2019 Malawian presidential election and finished third. That vote was won by incumbent Peter Mutharika but was annulled by Malawi’s Constitutional Court because of irregularities. Chakwera finished second in that election. Chilima then joined Chakwera’s campaign as his running mate in an historic election rerun in 2020, when Chakwera was elected president.

It was the first time in Africa that an election result that was overturned by a court resulted in a defeat for the sitting president. The vice president had been facing corruption charges over allegations that he received money in return for influencing the awarding of government contracts, but prosecutors dropped the charges last month. That led to criticism that Chakwera’s administration was not taking a hard enough stance against graft.

Chilima was arrested in late 2022 and made several court appearances, but the trial has yet to start. He has denied the allegations.

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