A Boeing 737 passenger jet on a domestic flight from Canton crashed Tuesday near the scenic tourist city of Guilin, killing all 141 people on board in the worst recorded air disaster in China's history.
Debris from the crash was scattered over a wide area of mountainous terrain, according to initial reports from Guilin. The cause of the crash was not immediately clear.
A Hong Kong television station reported that the China Southern Airlines plane exploded about five minutes before it was scheduled to land. But the British news agency Reuters quoted a Chinese travel agency official who said the plane crashed after the airport control tower told the pilot he was descending too rapidly.
Most of the 133 passengers and eight crew members who were aboard the flight were mainland Chinese, the state-run New China News Agency reported. The victims included nine people from Taiwan, two Spaniards, one Canadian and one person from the Portuguese-controlled territory of Macao.
The Spanish victims were identified as Nuria Trilla and Antonio Marti, an attache at the Spanish Embassy in Beijing told the Associated Press. He said he had no other information about them. The Canadian Embassy was withholding identification pending notification of the Canadian victim's relatives. No other information about the victims was released.
Guilin lies in a valley surrounded by picturesque peaks like those in traditional Chinese landscape paintings. The approach by air is dramatic.
Soldiers, police, airline officials and local rescue workers combed the rugged terrain for about 10 hours in search of survivors and the victims' remains. Investigators remained at the scene late Tuesday, looking for clues to what caused the crash, the AP said, quoting the Chinese news agency.
Luo Gan, secretary general of the State Council, flew to the crash site with Jiang Zhuping, president of the Civil Aviation Administration of China, the parent body of China Southern Airlines. On behalf of Premier Li Peng, Luo expressed grief and vowed to make the "utmost effort" to investigate the cause of the crash, Reuters said, quoting Chinese reports.
China's state-run airlines have been trying to improve their reputation after becoming notorious for unfriendly service, flight delays and sometimes poor maintenance. Foreigners living in Beijing frequently share dark humor about Chinese airlines, and many choose foreign airlines whenever possible.
Earlier this month, a Western journalist based in Beijing saw an airport worker smoking a cigarette while pumping fuel into a loaded airplane at Beijing airport. The journalist complained to a flight attendant, who in turn told the worker to put out the cigarette. The worker refused.
Despite such attitudes and behavior, China achieved a reasonable safety record in the 1980s even while rapidly expanding its air transportation industry. This was done partly by exercising extreme caution in judging acceptable flight conditions.
Airports generally lack equipment for instrument landings. Flights are postponed or canceled whenever weather conditions are unfavorable, which contributes to safety but is a major factor in the frequent delays.
Chinese officials said weather was not a factor in Tuesday's Guilin crash.
The plane was a 737-300, a newer generation jet, according to a statement by Boeing. The statement was released in Seattle, where the company is based. The plane was delivered in May, 1991. It had 4,165 flight hours and 3,153 landings, both low numbers, Boeing said.
The past five months have seen a string of Chinese air tragedies, with four other crashes killing a total of 170 people.
Guilin, one of China's most popular tourist destinations, was also the scene of a major crash 10 years ago, when a Trident airliner slammed into a mountainside, killing 112.