BANGKOK (AP) — A military plane carrying senior Lao government officials crashed Saturday in a wooded area as it approached an airport in the country's northeast, killing at least five people, including the defense minister and other high-ranking members of the authoritarian country's ruling party.
Lao National Television showed video of the mangled wreckage of the plane, with smoke rising from its badly charred remains. The footage showed rescuers pulling away pieces of aircraft debris and trying to dig through the remaining fuselage with shovels, as medical crews stood by watching.
About 18 people were believed to be on board the plane, which left Vientiane, Laos' capital, early Saturday morning to bring the group to an official ceremony in Xiangkhoung province, about 470 kilometers (290 miles) away, said Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Sek Wannamethee. Earlier reports had said about 20 people were on board.
The Ukrainian-made Antonov AN-74TK-300 crashed in Xiangkhoung's Pek district, where authorities were "helping to rescue the survivors," according to Lao state news agency KPL, which cited an announcement from the Prime Minister's Office. The brief official statement did not say how many people had died in the crash or survived.
Among those confirmed killed were Defense Minister Douangchay Phichit and his wife, said Nipat Thonglek, the Thai Defense Ministry's permanent secretary.
Douangchay was also one of Laos' deputy prime ministers and a high-ranking member of its Politburo, the main decision-making body for the nation's all-powerful Lao People's Revolutionary Party, which has ruled the single-party state since 1975.
Others killed in the crash included Minister of Public Security Thongbane Sengaphone, Vientiane Gov. Sukhan Mahalad and at least one other senior ruling party official, Sek said. He said he was given the information by authorities in neighboring Laos who did not immediately release details about the other passengers.
The Lao government is known for its secrecy, and most information about the crash — including the initial confirmation that it occurred — came from officials in neighboring Thailand.
"The accident happened as the plane was about to land at Xiangkhoung airport," said Sek. The airport is near one of Laos' major archaeological sites, the Plain of Jars. Xiangkhoung province borders northwestern Vietnam.
Authorities were investigating the cause of the crash.
The mountainous, landlocked country of 6.5 million people is one of the poorest in Asia. Its leaders are among the region's most secretive, tolerating almost no opposition and maintaining strict control over the media.
Douangchay as defense minister, and Thongbane as the security chief were both powerful and influential forces in the country's security operation. While the precise impact of their deaths was not immediately clear, analysts viewed their sudden departure as an unexpected blow to the government and the ruling party.
"It seems inevitable that the deaths of these officials, especially the two ministers, will have an impact on the power structure of the party and in Laos more generally," said Simon Creak, a historian of Laos and Southeast Asia at Japan's Kyoto University. "Especially with the next party congress, which will select the next generation of leaders, less than two years away."
The plane crash was the second for Laos in less than a year. In October, a Lao Airlines ATR-72 turboprop crashed during a heavy storm as it approached Pakse Airport in southern Laos, killing all 49 people on board.