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Congo suspends two airlines following deadly crash

altThe Democratic Republic of the Congo has suspended the licenses of two airlines after one of their aircraft crashed over the weekend, killing President Joseph Kabila’s chief adviser and seriously injuring his finance minister.

The Katanga Express Gulfstream 3 jet went down near the eastern town of Bukavu on Sunday as it tried to land at the airport there. Four others, including both pilots, were also killed in the crash. There were 10 passengers on board the executive jet.

Minister of Transport Joseph Martin Kitumba said in a statement released late Tuesday that the licenses of Air Katanga Express and Katanga Wings had been suspended as Congolese and American experts investigate the crash.

"Given the urgency and the necessity, an investigative commission has been created and charged with leading an investigation into the probable cause of the accident, and determining responsibility," said the statement.

The death of Kabilas adviser Augustin Katumba Mwanke, 58, comes as Kabila braces for negotiations to form a new coalition government after his disputed victory in a chaotic November election. Mwanke was regarded by many as "the power behind the throne," according to a leaked 2009 US diplomatic cable. He was a former governor of the copper-rich province of Katanga and retained major influence in the country's minerals sector.

Summing up Katumba's power, one Congolese senator said on condition of anonymity: "If you wanted to negotiate business and Kabila said 'yes', that was 50 percent, but if Katumba said 'yes', that was 100 percent."

Government spokesman Lambert Mende said, "it's a very big loss, he was considered a pillar of the presidential majority."

Lambert said Finance Minister Matata Ponyo Mapon and roving ambassador Antoine Ngonda were "heavily wounded" in the crash and Marcellin Cishambo Rohuya, governor of the local South Kivu province, was lightly injured.

A United Nations spokesman said the small plane appeared to have overshot the runway.

"I don't have the number (of passengers) but according to our people in South Kivu the pilot landed in the middle of the strip, and went over the end," said Alexandre Essome, spokesman for the UN mission MONUSCO in the eastern town of Goma, from where the plane had taken off.

Mwanke’s demise could herald major changes in the way Congo handles it huge resources, ranging from copper to gold, oil, diamonds and tin, and in the way it conducts business with international donors and investors.

The 2009 diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks noted that Katumba had been blamed within the government for bad press surrounding a US$9 billion mines-for-infrastructure deal with China. The deal, criticized by the International Monetary Fund and others for selling the country's assets short, was eventually revised down to US$6 billion in volume.

He had earlier been named in a 2002 report by the UN monitoring Group of Experts as being part of an organization that illegally seized control of billions of dollars' worth of state mining assets. He was briefly suspended from government following the report.

Kabila has been in power since a 2006 vote that drew a line under years of war and chaos in the central African country. But progress in developing its wealth has been slow and critics say corruption remains rampant.

Kabila was inaugurated for a new term in December despite broad misgivings over the November 28 poll, which was marred by bad organization and evidence of irregularities that sparked protests. Human Rights Watch said at least 24 people have been killed by security forces since results were announced.

Kabila's ruling party has also emerged in the lead from parliamentary elections held on the same day, but it won fewer seats than it had before, complicating the president's task of forming a solid coalition government.

The crash over the weekend is the latest in a country with one of the world’s worst air safety records. Two weeks ago, an Antonov aircraft crashed after it left the same airport in eastern Congo.

In July last year Congo’s transport ministry temporarily suspended the operating license of Hewa Bora Airways following a crash in which 83 people died. It was the airline’s second crash in three years, after its DC-9 airliner ploughed into a suburb of the eastern Congolese city of Goma, killing 44, in 2008.

Hewa Bora is on a European Union list of airlines banned due to security concerns, as are all carriers certified in the Congo.

In April last year, 32 people were killed when a UN plane crashed as it tried to land at the airport serving Congo's capital Kinshasa. The operator of the plane was Georgian flag carrier Airzena Georgian Airways.
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