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All feared dead in Congo wreck of mining execs' plane

By Samson Websi

YAOUNDE (Reuters) - Search teams on Monday found the wreckage of a plane carrying Australian mining executives in the jungle of Congo Republic, with all on board feared dead as remains of nine or 10 people were retrieved at the crash site.

The private plane's 11 passengers included Australian mining magnate Ken Talbot, one of Australia's richest men, and five executives from Australian mining firms Sundance Resources, Gindalbie and Western Areas.

"It is unfortunate that we fear that the 11 people on board, all of them have died," Information Minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary told a news conference in Cameroon's capital Yaounde.

"But for the time being we have retrieved between nine and ten bodies," he added after a search that was launched when the plane went missing over the weekend.

Bakary said the bodies had not yet been identified and that authorities were waiting to study the private CASA C212 prop plane's black box for clues on why it came down 10 km (six miles) inside the Congolese border with Cameroon.

Talbot is a director of Perth-based Sundance, developer of the $3 billion Mbalam iron ore mine straddling Cameroon and Congo, and his company Talbot Group is a major shareholder. Sundance plans to bring Mbalam iron into production in 2012.

Geoff Wedlock, chairman of Gindalbie and Sundance, and Craig Oliver, chief financial officer of nickel miner Western Areas, were among the missing mining executives. Two British, two French and one American were also on the aircraft.

Sundance Resources asked the Australian Stock Exchange to suspend its shares on Monday, and investment bank Renaissance Capital earlier downgraded the company from buy to hold.

"When Sundance begins to trade again there could be a significant markdown in value to reflect the uncertainty of the current situation," the bank said in a research note.

Aviation officials lost contact with the plane on Saturday about an hour after it took off from Yaounde en route to Yangadou in the northwest of Congo Republic.

Private aircraft are widely used by international companies operating in central Africa, where dense tropical forest and the lack of public flight connections make travel otherwise next to impossible.

Yet, even with well-maintained private jets, the state of local airstrips can make air travel dangerous.

Last September a plane carrying the South African delegation back from a summit in Libya had to make an emergency landing on an unlit airstrip in the northern Democratic Republic of Congo after missing a fuel stop because of bad weather.

Reporting by Samson Websi; writing by Mark John; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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