Jonathan Head said a search operation had resumed along the Mekong River
A plane carrying 49 passengers and crew that crashed in southern Laos hit bad weather as it came into land, officials in the South East Asian nation said.
The Laos Airlines plane, flying from the capital Vientiane, crashed into the Mekong river on Wednesday near its destination of Pakse.
All 44 passengers and five crew are believed to have died.
Footage of the scene on Thursday showed divers in the Mekong river, pulling out parts of the wreckage.
The passengers and crew came from a total of 10 nations, the airline said.
At daybreak, divers could be seen clinging to boats as they went out into the middle of the Mekong river to try to retrieve bodies from the submerged wreckage of Flight QV301. It is a difficult task. Now, at the end of the monsoon rainy season, the current in the river is very strong, and carrying a lot of churned up mud. The bodies that have already been recovered were initially laid out at a nearby temple.
The airline has suggested extremely bad weather may have contributed to the accident. Strong storms have passed over Vietnam, Laos and Thailand over the past three days at the tail end of Typhoon Nari.
The aircraft, an ATR 72-600, was brand new, delivered to Lao Airlines in March this year. This type is very widely used by airlines around the world for short-haul flights, and has a proven safety record. The more recently-manufactured models have advanced navigation aids that would normally allow them to land in poor visibility.
Lao Airlines is state-owned, and in the past had a patchy safety record. Until a decade ago, it operated mainly Russian or Chinese-made aircraft, but has modernised its fleet recently with EU-manufactured planes. Its last fatal accident was back in October 2000.
The airline has not done the IATA-approved Operational Safety Audit, which is the recognised standard for safety procedures. But there are a number of other airlines in the region that have also not done this audit, some of them well-known, and regarded as safe. Online comments by tourists have usually been very favourable towards the airline.
Seventeen Laos nationals were on board, plus travellers from France, Australia, Thailand, Vietnam, Canada, China, Malaysia, Taiwan and the US.
“Upon preparing to land at Pakse Airport the aircraft ran into extreme bad weather conditions and was reportedly crashed into the Mekong river,” the Laos Ministry of Public Works and Transport said in a statement.
State-run Laos news agency quoted an eyewitness as saying that the plane “appeared to be hit by a strong wind, causing its head to ascend and pushing it away from the airport area”.
A senior aviation official from Laos was quoted in other reports as saying the tail end of Typhoon Nari may have been a factor in the crash.
An Agence-France Presse (AFP) reporter on the scene told of debris floating in the river and suitcases buried in mud on the river banks.
“The search teams in Laos are taking the bodies to a local hospital,” Thai foreign ministry spokesman Sek Wannamethee told AFP.
An official in Pakse was quoted as saying at least six bodies had been retrieved.
The plane was an ATR 72-600 twin turboprop engine aircraft. Its manufacturer, ATR, said in a statement that the plane was “delivered from the production line in March 2013”.
The company said it would co-operate fully with the investigation.
Australian’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) said that six Australians, including four members of one family, were aboard the plane. An Australian aid worker and his father were also among those believed to have been killed.
DFAT released a photo of the two Australians – father and son Gordon and Michael Creighton.
The family said in a statement that they had “lost a father, a husband, a son, a brother, a fiance and a best mate in one tragic circumstance”.
Relatives of the Rhodes family also released a photo of Gavin, a tax consultant, his wife, Phoumalaysy and their two young children.
A DFAT spokesperson said that consular officials were in contact with the families of the victims and were travelling to Pakse.
However, a DFAT statement said: “Lao authorities have told our embassy in Vientiane they do not expect any survivors.”
The route between the capital Vientiane and Pakse is popular with the growing numbers of tourists visiting Laos, correspondents say.
Lao Airlines is small company, with just 14 aircraft in its fleet. It flies several domestic routes and has flights to other countries in the region like China, Thailand and Singapore.