Soldiers, police and foresters continue to search for the missing plane carrying the Vice President of Malawi

Hundreds of soldiers, police and forest rangers continued to search on Tuesday for a missing military plane carrying Malawi’s vice president, a former first lady and eight other people. The plane is believed to have crashed in a mountainous region with dense forests in the north of the country.

The plane carrying 51-year-old Vice President Saulos Chilima and former First Lady Shanil Dzimbiri disappeared on Monday morning during the 45-minute flight from the South African country’s capital, Lilongwe, to the city of Mzuzu, about 370 kilometers to the north.

Air traffic controllers asked the plane not to attempt a landing at Mzuzu airport because of bad weather and poor visibility and to return to Lilongwe, President Lazarus Chakwera said. Air traffic controllers then lost contact with the plane and it disappeared from radar, he said.

There were seven passengers and three military crew on board. The president described the plane as a small propeller aircraft belonging to the Malawi Armed Forces. The tail number he provided shows that it is a Dornier 228 twin-engine propeller aircraft delivered to the Malawi Army in 1988, according to the ch-aviation website, which tracks information on aircraft.

The search in a vast forest plantation in the Viphya Mountains near Mzuzu involved around 600 people, authorities said. They said 300 police officers had been mobilised to join around 200 soldiers and local forest rangers in the search operation. Malawi Red Cross spokesman Felix Washoni said his organisation had also involved team members in the search and they had deployed a drone to help in efforts to find the plane.

General Valentino Phiri, commander of the Malawian armed forces, said on Tuesday that the dense forest and hilly terrain made the search operation extremely difficult. The area has large, artificial forests that are used for timber extraction.

In a live televised address to the nation late Monday night, the president vowed that search operations would continue throughout the night and until the plane was found. He said authorities had used telecommunications towers to track the plane’s last known position within a 10-kilometer (6-mile) radius of one of the plantations. That area is the focus of the search and rescue operation, he said.

“I have given strict instructions to continue the operation until the plane is found,” Chakwera said.

“I know this is a heartbreaking situation. I know we are all scared and worried. I am worried too,” he said in a speech after 11 p.m. that was broadcast on state television. “But I want to assure you that I will spare no available means to find this plane. And I hold on to every fiber of hope that we will find survivors.”

Chakwera said the United States, Britain, Norway and Israel had offered help in the search operation and provided “special technologies” that the president hoped would help find the plane more quickly.

The US Embassy in Malawi said it was helping and had offered the use of a small C-12 aircraft from the Department of Defense. General Phiri said Malawi had also asked neighboring Zambia and Tanzania for help and helicopters and more drones were on the way.

Malawi has a population of around 21 million and was ranked the fourth poorest country in the world by the World Bank in 2019.

Representatives of Chilima’s political party, the United Transformation Movement – a different party from the president – criticized the government’s response as slow and said there was no transponder on board the plane, which was worrying for a plane carrying a high-level delegation.

Chakwera said Dzimbiri, the ex-wife of former President Bakili Muluzi, was also among the passengers. The group was on its way to attend the funeral of a former minister. Chilima had only returned from an official visit to South Korea on Sunday.

Chakwera asked Malawians to pray for everyone on board and their families.

Chilima is serving his second term as Vice President. He also served in the role under former President Peter Mutharika from 2014 to 2019. He was a candidate in the 2019 Malawi presidential election, coming third behind incumbent Mutharika and Chakwera. The election was later annulled by Malawi’s Constitutional Court due to irregularities.

Chilima then joined Chakwera’s campaign as his running mate in a historic 2020 re-election that saw Chakwera elected president. It was the first time in Africa that an election result annulled by a court resulted in defeat for the incumbent president.

Chilima had previously been charged with corruption for allegedly receiving money to influence the awarding of government contracts to the Malawi armed forces and police. Last month, however, prosecutors dropped the charges. He had denied the allegations, but the case sparked criticism that Chakwera’s government was not cracking down on corruption enough.


Imray reported from Cape Town, South Africa.


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