Crashed Pakistan plane hit runway three times on first approach, minister says

ISLAMABAD/PARIS (Reuters) – The captain of a Pakistani airliner that crashed last week, killing 97 people on board, approached Karachi airport without announcing he couldn’t open his landing gear and hit the runway three times, a government minister said on Thursday.

Search teams recovered the cockpit voice recorder from the wreckage of the Pakistan International Airlines Airbus A320 that crashed into a residential neighbourhood of Karachi last Friday, a spokesman for the airline said. Two people on board survived.

Flight PK8303, from the eastern city of Lahore, came down less than a mile short of the runway as it was making a second attempt to land.

The flight data recorder has already been found.

Minister for Civil Aviation Ghulam Sarwar Khan told reporters the plane’s engines touched the ground three times on the first attempt at landing.

“The pilot never announced his landing gear wasn’t opening. He haphazardly touched the engines thrice with the ground,” Khan said.

“All marks are present (on the runway). He was not at the proper height… Control tower informed him you aren’t at the required height, lower your altitude,” he said, adding that the pilot replied: “I will manage.”

According to communications posted on liveatc.net, an aviation radio monitoring website, the pilot told controllers “we’re comfortable now” during the approach, but the reason for the remark has left most experts puzzled.

Shortly after the engines scraped along the runway in the aborted first landing attempt, the pilot reported problems in maintaining altitude, then said both engines had failed.

Investigators are expected to examine whether the engines shut down because of their collision with the runway, following what appeared to be a steeper and faster approach than normal.

The lower part of the engine housing contains key components including an accessory gearbox and hydraulic pumps.

“All sorts of things can happen to an engine if you bounce it down the runway,” a person familiar with its design said.

The engines were made by CFM International, a French-American venture co-owned by Safran and General Electric, and are among the most widely used in the industry with a strong overall record of reliability.

The recorders will be read in France by the BEA air accident agency, which is part of the Pakistan-led probe.

Safety experts caution it is too early to say what caused the crash and stress most accidents result from a cocktail of factors.

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Pilot issued warning before fatal plane crash in Pakistan

When the plane jolted violently, Mohammad Zubair thought it was turbulence. Then the pilot came on the intercom to warn that the landing could be “troublesome.”

Moments later, the Pakistan International Airlines flight crashed into a crowded neighbourhood near Karachi’s international airport, killing 97 people, all of whom are believed to be passengers and crew members. Zubair was one of just two surviving passengers.

Meeran Yousaf, the provincial Health Department spokeswoman, said only 19 of the bodies from Friday’s crash have been identified and that most of the bodies were badly burned. Eight people on the ground were injured, including four who are still hospitalized, and all residents are accounted for, she said.

The plane crashed near Jinnah International Airport, in the poor and congested residential area known as Model Colony. PIA spokesman Abdullah Hafiz Khan said the aircraft destroyed or heavily damaged 18 homes.

Civil Aviation Authority spokesman Abdul Sattar Kokhar said the Airbus A230 was carrying 91 passengers and eight crew members. The only other survivor of the crash was Zafar Masood, a bank executive.

In a telephone interview from his hospital bed, Zubair, a mechanical engineer, said flight PK8308 had taken off on time from the eastern city of Lahore at 1 p.m. It was a smooth, uneventful flight until the aircraft began its descent near Karachi shortly before 3 p.m.

“Suddenly the plane jerked violently, once and then again,” said Zubair. The aircraft turned and the pilot’s voice came over the intercom. They were experiencing engine trouble and the landing could be “troublesome,” the pilot said. That was the last thing Zubair remembered until he woke up in a scene of chaos.

“I saw so much smoke and fire. I heard people crying, children crying.”

He crawled his way out of the smoke and rubble, and was eventually pulled from the ground and rushed into an ambulance.

Pakistan had only earlier this week resumed domestic flights ahead of Eid-al Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Many of the passengers aboard the flight were families returning home for the holiday, said Science Minister Fawad Ahmed Chaudhry.

Southern Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital, is the epicenter of Pakistan’s outbreak, with nearly 20,000 of the country’s more than 50,000 cases. Pakistan has reported 1,101 deaths from the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus.

A transmission of the pilot’s final exchange with air traffic control, posted on the website LiveATC.net, indicated he had failed to land and was circling to make another attempt.

“We are proceeding direct, sir _ we have lost engine,” the pilot said.

“Confirm your attempt on belly,” the air traffic controller said, offering a runway.

“Sir, mayday, mayday, mayday, mayday Pakistan 8303,” the pilot said before the transmission ended.

PIA Chairman Arshad Malik told reporters Friday in Karachi that an independent inquiry would be held but said the aircraft was in good working order.

Airworthiness documents showed the plane last received a government check on Nov. 1, 2019. PIA’s chief engineer signed a separate certificate April 28 saying all maintenance had been conducted. It said “the aircraft is fully airworthy and meets all the safety” standards.

Ownership records for the Airbus A320 showed China Eastern Airlines flew the plane from 2004 until 2014. The plane then entered PIA’s fleet, leased from GE Capital Aviation Services.

Airbus said the plane had logged 47,100 flight hours and 25,860 flights as of Friday. The plane had two CFM56-5B4 engines.

Airbus said it would provide technical assistance to investigators in France and Pakistan, as well as the airline and engine manufacturers.

“We at Airbus are deeply saddened by the tragic news of flight #PK8303,” tweeted Executive Director Guillaume Faury. “In aviation, we all work hard to prevent this. Airbus will provide full assistance to the investigating authorities.”

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Pakistani police arrest cousin of two girls murdered over social media kissing video

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – Pakistani police have arrested the cousin of two teenage girls whom he is suspected of killing after a video of the girls kissing a man went viral on social media, officials said on Thursday.

Jasima Bibi and Saeeda Bibi, sisters aged 16 and 18, were murdered on May 14 in the former tribal district of North Waziristan in Pakistan’s conservative northwest province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in what police say was an “honor killing” after their relatives saw the video online.

“The main suspect has confessed to the murder during investigations and now we will produce him before a judge,” a senior provincial police official, Abdul Ghafoor Afridi, told Reuters.

The suspect is the girls’ first cousin.

Police had earlier arrested the man seen in the video kissing the girls, along with another man whose cellphone was used to make the video, and who police say is the one who uploaded it on social media.

The girls’ father and uncle had been arrested on suspicion of concealing the murder.

Police said the girls’ relatives did not want to bring charges so the state became the complainant in the case.

Thousands of incidents of violence against women perceived to have “damaged” family honour are reported in Pakistan each year and many more go unreported, rights groups say.

In addition to murder charges, police are also using laws specifically meant to curb “honour killings” introduced in 2016, according to a charge sheet seen by Reuters.

Suspects often escape punishment because they are related to the victims, and use a loophole in the law allowing the dropping of charges if two parties come to an agreement over the killing.

In 2016, Pakistan amended its laws in a bid to close that loophole and allow prosecutors to seek life in prison for those suspected of an “honour killing”.

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Pakistan records highest number of coronavirus deaths in a day

Monday also saw highest single-day rise in confirmed cases as 705 more got infected, taking country’s tally to 9,214.

Islamabad, Pakistan– Pakistan has seen its highest rise in deaths in a single day from the coronavirus, with 17 new cases taking the country’s death toll from the highly contagious virus to at least 192, according to government data.

Monday also saw the highest single-day rise in cases in Pakistan, with 705 confirmed cases taking the country’s tally to 9,214, according to the data.

More:

  • Pakistanis gather for Friday prayers defying coronavirus advisory

  • Tens of thousands of Pakistanis await repatriation flights

  • Pakistan quarantines 20,000 following Tabligh gathering in Lahore

The country has been easing its lockdown in order to stave off an economic crisis from stagnating growth.

So far, at least 2,053 patients have recovered from COVID-19 in the country, leaving the active case tally at 6,969.

The increase in cases has occurred in conjunction with a modest increase in testing capacity, as the government aims to ramp up to 25,000 tests a day.

Pakistan has conducted 111,806 tests, or 0.53 tests per thousand people.

The government appears to be far off its target, however, with only 5,347 tests conducted on Monday, as per government data.

After an initial outbreak sparked mainly by cases of travellers from neighbouring Iran and other countries, Pakistan has seen a spike in local transmission of the virus, which accounted for 65 percent of all cases as of this week, the country’s de facto Health Minister Zafar Mirza told reporters.

Mirza also said the government was working on setting up a platform to allow Pakistani doctors in the global diaspora to return to the country and help efforts to fight the coronavirus.

On Sunday, doctors’ unions across the country formed the Grand National Health Alliance in protest against what they say is a lack of proper personal protective equipment (PPE) kits and other steps to keep doctors safe from the virus.

The move came days after young doctors protesting the lack of PPE kits clashed with police outside a main government building in the eastern city of Lahore. A group of protesters is holding a hunger strike at that protest site, demanding better protection for healthcare workers.

Ramadan measures

On Monday, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan met senior religious leaders from across the country to reiterate the government’s commitment to reopen mosques under a 20-point set of guidelines to ensure proper physical distancing.

“The religious leaders’ delegation fully supported the prime minister’s position on the lockdown,” said a statement released by Khan’s office after the meeting. “The religious leaders assured [the government] of their full cooperation.”

Mirza, the health minister, said all the religious leaders – some of whom had unilaterally declared they would be reopening mosques for congregational prayers last week – agreed that they would abide by the government’s code of conduct.

“Religious leaders have taken the responsibility to implement those SOPs,” he said. “In this respect, there is an understanding that if, God forbid, we find out that the virus is spreading more rapidly because of this, then we will take appropriate steps, while taking the [leaders] in confidence.”

The government’s plan for reopening mosques includes ensuring that worshippers stand more than two metres (six feet) from each other; removing prayer mats and carpets from mosque floors; and cleaning mosque floors with chlorinated disinfectants.

The government has also banned elderly and sick people from attending prayers, has asked that ablutions be performed at home, and that all worshippers wear face masks. Prayer leaders have been told to discourage discussions between worshippers after the conclusion of prayers.

The plan also has specific arrangements for special “tarawih” prayers that are observed during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which is to begin later this week. Mosques will hold limited tarawih prayers, and will not be allowed to serve meals to break the fast at sunset or before the fast at sunrise.

Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.

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Pakistanis gather for Friday prayers defying coronavirus advisory

With no consensus between religious leaders and authorities, congregational prayers are held at some mosques.

Islamabad, Pakistan – A lack of consensus between religious leaders and the Pakistani government has seen Friday congregational prayers still being held at some mosques across the country, in defiance of government guidelines on social distancing amidst the coronavirus outbreak.

In the capital, Islamabad, hundreds gathered at the Red Mosque, led by hardline religious leader Abdul Aziz, to offer prayers, standing shoulder-to-shoulder and filling the mosque’s main hall to capacity.

More:

  • Pakistan relaxes coronavirus restrictions for some key industries

  • Tens of thousands of Pakistanis await repatriation flights

  • Pakistan quarantines 20,000 following Tabligh gathering in Lahore

Reports indicated that congregational prayers were also held at major mosques in other cities, with varying levels of social distancing.

Aziz, who led an armed standoff between his followers and the government that culminated in Pakistani soldiers raiding the mosque in 2007, was not available to speak on Friday.

He had spoken to Al Jazeera earlier this month by telephone, during which he remained adamant that he would continue to lead congregational prayers at the mosque.

“[Lockdowns are] not the answer to these problems,” Aziz had told Al Jazeera. “We believe the people should not be made to fear things right now, they should have faith in God at this time, and to place their hope in him … If death is written for you, then it will come.”

Pakistan has seen at least 7,008 coronavirus cases so far, with at least 134 deaths, according to the government’s data. At least 1,757 patients have recovered.

Earlier this week, Pakistan’s government eased a nationwide lockdown, reopening more than a dozen industries and categories of businesses in a bid to stave off spiralling unemployment and economic slowdown caused by the lockdown.

Mosques, however, were advised to restrict congregational prayers to a maximum of five people, all of whom were required to be staff members residing within the mosque’s premises.

Police stood guard outside the Red Mosque in Islamabad, but did not intervene when the crowd formed inside.

A police official at the scene, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera they did not have orders to stop people.

Asked whether congregants should be asked to maintain distance between them in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Aziz was adamant.

“Our stance is against this. [Doctors’] opinion is not the word of God, that is their opinion,” he said. “It is our opinion that this is a punishment from God, and it is coming because we have filled the world with sins.”

Pledge to reopen mosques rescinded 

On Tuesday, religious leaders from more than a dozen prominent religious organisations signed a pledge to reopen their mosques, while promising to take precautions against the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

The order was rescinded on Thursday, with several religious leaders who were present at the Tuesday announcement saying they were entering into negotiations with the government to develop standard operating procedures to reopen the mosques safely.

“In grocery stores, people are gathering in crowds and is there no corona[virus] there?” Muneeb-ur-Rehman, a prominent religious leader, told Al Jazeera on Friday. “This is just a movement to try and target religion and mosques.”

“If the issue is gathering, and if people gather in other places according to an SOP [Standard Operating Procedure], then we can do that in the mosque as well. Please end the hate against the mosque.”

Rehman is among a number of senior Muslim leaders due to meet Prime Minister Imran Khan on Saturday to lay out regulations on how the mosques will operate during the coronavirus pandemic.

In other mosques in Islamabad, Muslim leaders enforced social distancing guidelines.

“Whoever wants to come can attend the prayers,” said Saeed-ur-Rehman, a prayer leader at a mosque in the city’s F-11 neighbourhood. “We have told our congregants about all of the steps they need to take.”

At another prominent mosque in the city’s F-8 neighbourhood, normally packed for midday prayers on Friday, there were roughly 40 worshippers gathered, all sitting nearly six metres apart from one another.

“We are following all the advices on distancing given by the government,” said Ghulam Nabi Janbaz, a member of staff at the mosque.

Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.

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