CANBERRA (Reuters) - Around 28 people are feared dead after a passenger aircraft crashed Thursday in the South Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea, with only four survivors reportedly pulled from the wreckage, local aviation and embassy officials said.
The Airlines PNG Dash 8 with 32 passengers and crew on board was en route from Lae to the resort town of Madang in PNG's north when it crashed in bad weather around 20kmsoutheast of its destination, Sid O'Toole, from the PNG Accident Investigation Commission, told Australian radio.
"The crew have experienced a problem, the thing has actually gone down overland with reports of fire and there have been some fatalities," O'Toole said.
People from a village near the crash site in thick forest at the mouth of the Gogol River said they had rescued four people, some with serious burns. Two pilots from Australia and New Zealand were believed to be among the survivors.
"Initial indications are that there are no Australians amongst those killed. The high commission has undertaken preliminary checks, but official confirmation may take some time," a spokeswoman for Australia's Foreign Ministry said.
Most of the passengers on the aircraft were believed to be local Papuan parents on their way to attend student graduation ceremonies at Madang's Divine Word University.
"A huge storm came through, huge, big winds, lots of rain. The story is that ... the plane went down during this storm," said Trevor Hattersley, the Australian High Commission's warden in Madang.
Airlines PNG said it had grounded its fleet of 12 aircraft until further notice and was co-operating with authorities to mount rescue and recovery efforts.
A full investigation was under way by authorities and Airlines PNG as to the possible cause of the accident.
The crash is the second fatal incident involving an Airlines PNG aircraft in recent years. In August 2009 an Airlines PNG Twin Otter crashed on approach to the Kokoda airstrip, killing all 13 people onboard, including nine Australians.
More than 20 aircraft have crashed in the country since 2000, prompting the government to crack down on airline safety given its importance in overcoming PNG rugged mountain terrain and lack of roads.
The Dash 8 is a series of twin-engined, medium-range, turboprop airliners. Introduced by De Havilland Canada in 1984, they are now made by Bombardier Aerospace.
(Reporting by Rob Taylor; Editing by Editing by Michael Perry)