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160 believed dead in Venezuela jet crash

Pilot had reported engine trouble aboard MD-82

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Air and Space Accidents
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BOGOTA, Colombia (CNN) -- A Colombian airliner carrying 160 people crashed Tuesday in a remote area of western Venezuela, aviation officials said.

No survivors have been found.

A spokeswoman for West Caribbean Airways, based in Medellin, Colombia, told CNN there were 152 passengers and eight crew members on board, making it the deadliest plane crash in Venezuela's history.

The MD-82 aircraft left Tocumen International Airport south of Panama City around 1 a.m. local time, headed for Fort de France, Martinique, according to Panamanian aviation officials.

Most of the passengers were from Martinique, according to civil aeronautics officials in Colombia, and the crew was Colombian.

The flight had been chartered by tourists in Martinique, a French possession in the Caribbean.

Venezuelan officials said the jetliner's pilots reported engine problems shortly before contact was lost with the aircraft around 3 a.m. ET.

Tomas Paredes with Panama's aviation agency told CNN in a phone interview the pilots had asked to descend from 31,000 feet to 14,000 feet because both engines were having problems.

That was the last communication from the aircraft, Paredes said.

Explosion reported

Some residents in Venezuela's Zulia state reported hearing a loud explosion early in the morning, near the city of Machiques and Lake Maracaibo, local law enforcement officials said. The crash site is not far from the border with Colombia.

Search and rescue crews are removing bodies from the site of the crash, officials said, and will move them to a morgue.

Local officials said there are no survivors.

At least 150 workers are at the crash site -- including national guard members and firefighters -- according to the Venezuelan aviation authority.

Reporter Jeidis Osechas of the Venezuelan television network Globovision told CNN from the scene of the crash there was still smoke coming from the heavily forested region, and the wreckage appeared to be strewn over a large area.

French President Jacques Chirac released a statement expressing his sorrow about the accident that claimed the lives of several French citizens.

"The president expresses, on behalf of all French citizens, his saddest condolences and his deep compassion for the families and friends of the victims," the statement said.

Chirac said he was sending his overseas territories minister to Martinique immediately, and the French Foreign Ministry has set up a crisis office to deal with the accident.

A smaller aircraft owned by West Caribbean Airways crashed as it took off in Colombia in March, killing eight people and injuring eight others.

Previous crashes

The McDonnell Douglas MD-80 series has been involved in 11 fatal crashes since it went into service in 1980 -- seven involved the MD-82 model.

The deadliest was the December 1, 1981, crash of an Inex-Adria Airways flight that went down in Ajaccio, France, killing all 180 people on board. Human error was found to be the cause of that crash.

Boeing acquired McDonnell Douglas in 1997 and ended production of the MD-80 series in 1999. The plane is still in use around the world.

The two companies built 1,191 MD-80s.

CNN's Karl Penhaul contributed to this report.

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