By Gopal Sharma
KATHMANDU (Reuters) - A small plane struck a bird and crashed shortly after takeoff from the Nepali capital of Kathmandu on Friday, killing 19 people, including seven British and five Chinese passengers, officials said.
The crash of the propeller-driven Dornier aircraft was the sixth fatal air accident in less than two years in Nepal, where more than a dozen small private carriers often brave bad weather to fly to mountain areas served by no proper road network.
Tourism officials said the latest accident could deter foreign tourists from embarking on treks in Nepal. Many of the dead were trekkers.
Rescuers pulled charred bodies from the smoldering wreckage in a field on a riverbank near the airport. The Dornier, one of three operated by private firm Sita Air, was bound on a clear morning for Lukla - a gateway to Mount Everest.
Ratish Chandra Lal, general manager of Kathmandu airport, said the pilot had informed air traffic controllers that the plane had hit a bird.
The British embassy confirmed its nationals were among the dead.
Four Nepali passengers and three Nepali crew also died in the crash, the second tragedy to hit the country in less than a week. An avalanche killed at least 11 people, mostly foreigners, on a Himalayan peak on Sunday.
A hiking group, Sherpa Adventure, said the Britons had been heading to the Khumbu area, home to Everest and other peaks.
"The accident could raise questions about safety and could definitely affect tourism to some extent in the country," said Ang Tshering Sherpa, who runs the Asian Trekking agency.
There have been about 70 crashes in the 55-year history of Nepali aviation. Nawaraj Giri, a Sita official, said it was the first accident to hit the airline's fleet of Dornier planes.
Autumn is the peak tourism season in Nepal, which has eight of the world's 14 highest mountains.
Nepal receives more than half a million tourists every year, many of them Western hikers and climbers. Tourism accounts for 4 percent of an economy battered by a decade of civil war.
In May, 15 people were killed when their plane crashed into a hill in northwest Nepal.
(Reporting by Gopal Sharma; Editing by Matthias Williams and Ron Popeski)