Blantyre, June 11: Soldiers, police officers and forest rangers continued to search Tuesday for a missing military plane carrying Malawi's vice president, a former first lady and eight others that is suspected to have crashed in a mountainous region in the north of the country. The plane carrying 51-year-old Vice President Saulos Chilima and former first lady Shanil Dzimbiri went missing Monday morning while making the 45-minute flight from the southern African nation's capital, Lilongwe, to the city of Mzuzu, around 370 kilometres to the north.

Air traffic controllers told the plane not to attempt a landing at Mzuzu's airport because of bad weather and poor visibility and asked it to turn back to Lilongwe, President Lazarus Chakwera said. Air traffic control then lost contact with the aircraft and it disappeared from radar, he said. Seven passengers and three military crew members were on board. The president described the aircraft as a small, propeller driven plane operated by the Malawian armed forces. Saulos Chilima Disappearance: Malawi Vice President Missing After Plane Carrying Him and Nine Others Goes Off Radar; Search Operation Underway.

Around 600 personnel were involved in the search in a vast forest plantation in the Viphya Mountains near Mzuzu, authorities said. They said 300 police officers had been mobilized to join soldiers and forest rangers in the search operation. Malawi Red Cross spokesperson Felix Washoni said his organisation also had team members involved in the search and they were using a drone to help with efforts to find the plane.

In a live television address to the nation late on Monday night, the president vowed that search operations would continue through the night and until the plane was found. He said authorities had used telecommunications towers to track the last known position of the plane to a 10-kilometre radius in one of the plantations. That area was the focus of the search and rescue operation, he said. “I have given strict orders that the operation should continue until the plane is found,” Chakwera said. Saulos Chilima’s Plane Goes Missing: Malawi Vice-President's Aircraft Goes ‘Off Radar’, Search and Rescue Operation Underway.

“I know this is a heartbreaking situation. I know we are all frightened and concerned. I too am concerned,” he said. “But I want to assure you that I am sparing no available resource to find that plane. And I am holding onto every fiber of hope that we will find survivors.” Chakwera said the US, the UK, Norway and Israel offered assistance in the search operation and had provided “specialised technologies” that the president hoped would help find the plane sooner.

The US Embassy in Malawi said it was assisting in the search operation and had offered the use of a Department of Defence small C-12 plane. Chakwera said Dzimbiri, the ex-wife of former President Bakili Muluzi, was also one of the passengers. The group was travelling to attend the funeral of a former government minister. Chilima had just returned from an official visit to South Korea on Sunday.

Chakwera asked Malawians to pray for all those onboard and their families.

Chilima has been vice president since 2020. He was a candidate in the 2019 Malawian presidential election and finished third, behind the incumbent, Peter Mutharika, and Chakwera. The vote was later annulled by Malawi's Constitutional Court because of irregularities.

Chilima then joined Chakwera's campaign as his running mate in an historic election rerun in 2020, when Chakwera was elected president. It was the first time in Africa that an election result that was overturned by a court resulted in a defeat for the sitting president.

Chilima had previously been facing corruption charges over allegations that he received money in return for influencing the awarding of government contracts, but prosecutors dropped the charges last month. He had denied the allegations, but the case led to criticism that Chakwera's administration was not taking a hard enough stance against graft. (AP)