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Jet crashes into ocean off W. Africa, killing 82

COTONOU, Benin -- A jetliner clipped a building during takeoff and crashed into the sea off the West African nation of Benin yesterday, killing at least 82 people -- mostly Lebanese on their way home for the holidays, the transport minister said.

At least 24 people survived the crash, Transport Minister Ahmed Akobi said.

There were fears the death toll would rise as fishermen and emergency crews scoured the water into the night, with spotlights set up along the beach to help them search for survivors and recover more bodies.

It was unclear how many people were on the chartered Boeing 727. Akobi said there were 156 passengers and an unknown number of crew, while an official with the charter company, UTA, said 253 people were on board.

The flight originated in the Guinean capital, Conakry, stopped in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and was bound for Beirut, Transportation Minister Najib Mikati of Lebanon said.

There was no word on what caused the aircraft to strike the building. Authorities shut down Cotonou airport until today as a security precaution, Akobi said.

The Boeing 727 had just lifted off at 2:55 p.m. from the seaside airport in Cotonou, Benin's commercial capital, said Jerome Dandjinou, a senior airport security official.

"The back of the plane hit a building at the end of the runway. There was a fire and an explosion was heard," Dandjinou said. "The plane exploded and the debris fell into the water."

A reporter saw dozens of bodies -- men, women, and children, including infants -- floating among the plane's wreckage about 150 yards off a Cotonou beach.

Television images showed pieces of the plane lying in the surf: a shorn-off landing gear, part of a wing, the cockpit, the rear part of the fuselage, and an engine.

Tangled wires and metal hung from the ripped-open fuselage. One man sat in the sand, blood running down his bare chest. Another injured man held his head.

One of the Lebanese survivors, Nabil Hashem, told Al Manar television in Beirut that he was in the back of the plane and was able to swim to safety.

"Those in the front were the most hurt," Hashem said. "May God's mercy fall on them. It was a horrible scene."

Ghabi Koudieh, a Lebanese expatriate in Cotonou, told Al Manar that 90 bodies were pulled from the sea. At least 80 of those were Lebanese, he said. Other witnesses said there were about 35 Lebanese survivors.

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