Six Australians from Sundance Resources missing in Cameroon
June 21, 2010RESIDENTS in a Cameroonian town reported seeing a midair explosion that was possibly the breakup of a missing plane
that was carrying mining executives to the Republic of Congo.
"Information from Cameroon military searchers says that the plane might have crashed around the town of Djoum. Residents in Djoum said they saw explosions in the air Saturday," said a Cameroon official affiliated to Cam Iron, the Cameroon subsidiary of Sundance Resources, according to Dow Jones Newswires.
Two Cameroon military reconnaissance plane searches also indicated that the missing plane possibly crashed in the southern Cameroon town, located 200km southeast of the Yaounde airport where the plane took off, staff monitoring the incident and a military official connected with the search said.
The chartered aircraft was carrying six Australians, two French, an American and two Britons, most of whom were from Western Australia-based international mining company Sundance Resources Limited, when it disappeared over dense jungle on Saturday.
Among those on the flight was one of Australia's richest men, Ken Talbot, a non-executive director of Sundance and a renowned mining magnate worth about $1 billion.
Cameroon's Communications Minister Issa Thiroma Bakary said the CASA C-212 twin turboprop - owned by Congo-Brazzaville company Aero-Service and chartered by the subsidiary - disappeared during a Saturday flight from Cameroon's Yaounde-Nsimalen International Airport to Yangadou in Congo-Brazzaville.
Although Thiroma Bakary said the "very difficult" search of the densely-forested area was "stopped for the night," it is expected to resume at approximately 4pm.
"The search provided no conclusive evidence,'' Foreign Minister Stephen Smith told ABC Radio this morning.
"We remain very seriously concerned about the welfare of the six Australians.''
Mr Smith said the focus of the search was on the border region of Cameroon and Congo.
"There's a distinct possibility that the search effort will be complemented tomorrow with additional helicopters and possibly fixed-wing aircraft.''
Those on board the missing plane include Mr Talbot and the entire board of Sundance; the company's CEO Don Lewis; its chairman Geoff Wedlock; company secretary John Carr-Gregg - the brother of Melbourne psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg - and board members Craig Oliver and John Jones.
Dr Carr-Gregg said last night his brother had sent a text to say he was off before the flight took off, but that was the last he had heard from him.
"We haven't heard anything. We're playing an awful waiting game," Dr Carr-Gregg said.
"We're sitting by the phone just waiting for a call.
"It's just horrible, because you don't know what's going on."
Cameroonian President Paul Biya set up a crisis panel to coordinate the search.
Colonel Pomphile Akoli-Awaya of Brazzaville's Maya-Maya Airport said the search was also called off for the night on the Congolese side but would resume later today.
Mr Talbot's private investment company the Talbot Group named a seventh person known to have been on board the missing flight as Talbot Group executive assistant Natasha Flason, who is from France but who lives in Australia.
She had been in the job for only three months.
The others on board were three local employees of the miner and the plane's pilot.
A multinational air and ground search is expected to resume about 4pm, said Talbot Group CEO Shane Edwards. The company, Sundance's largest shareholder, had no further comment at this stage.
The CASA C-212 twin turboprop vanished just 25 minutes into a flight from the Cameroon capital Yaounde to Yangadou in the Republic of Congo.
“The search is very difficult, it is taking place in a dense forest," Cameroon Communications Minister Issa Thiroma Bakary said.
The aircraft was operated by a Congo-Brazzaville company, Aero-Service, and chartered by Cam Iron, the Cameroon subsidiary of Sundance Resources.
Cameroonian President Paul Biya has set up a crisis panel that is to coordinate the search.
Cameroon has assigned a C-130 Hercules and smaller Piper and Dornier aircraft to search for the plane, and has asked local officials, communities and logging firms along its flight path for any clues that might help.
Mr Smith said Australian officials on the ground in Cameroon were "very satisfied'' with the response so far of local authorities.
Sundance Resources said in a statement that most of those on board the flight were from the firm and were visiting the company's iron ore project in Cameroon and Congo.
Sundance said it had now halted its operations in Africa to focus on the search and would ask the Australian stock exchange to put the company's securities into a trading halt before the opening of trade this morning .
Mr Talbot has built a colossal mining and property empire after selling his 27 per cent stake in the company he founded in 1995, Macarthur Coal, for a cool $700 million.
Despite his unparalleled success, the 58-year-old is also at the centre of a major corruption inquiry where it is alleged he dished out $360,000 of bribes to disgraced former Queensland cabinet minister Gordon Nuttall.
Mr Talbot and his wife Amanda have four children - Alexandra, Claudia, Liam and Courtney.
It is believed Ms Talbot was in Paris staying in the couple's luxury apartment on the Champs Elysee when she was told of the missing plane.
Friends of the family said a highly distressed Ms Talbot had been asking for people to go to France to comfort her.
It is not known if any of her children were with her.
The Department of Foreign Affairs said the High Commissioner designate to Abuja was in Cameroon and was "managing the Government's response on the ground".
Another official from Australia's High Commission in Abuja, plus a specialist consular officer based in the Middle East, will also go to Cameroon as soon as possible to support the Government's response.