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Thu 2 Jul 2009 06:00 AM

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Yemeni airliner crash survivor hailed

Officials say girl clung to wreckage in the Indian Ocean for more than 10 hours before she was rescued.

Yemeni airliner crash survivor hailed
CRASH TRAGEDY: Officials have hailed the courage of the only survivor of the Yemenia crash. (Getty Images)

The only known survivor of the crash of the Yemeni airliner clung to wreckage in the Indian Ocean for more than 10 hours before she was rescued, officials have said, hailing the girl's courage.

Bahia Bakari, a timid 12-year-old, spent the day recovering in hospital in the Comoros capital Moroni, not far from where the Yemenia airlines jet plunged into the sea in the early hours of Tuesday, killing the other 152 on board.

"She showed admirable courage," France's Cooperation Minister Alain Joyandet told reporters after meeting the girl in hospital, and before she boarded his aircraft to return home to Paris.

"She spent close to 10 hours waiting to be rescued after the crash."

Bahia's father, Kassim Bakari, told AFP that his daughter was ejected from the Airbus A310 into the ocean -- suffering a fractured collarbone and burns to her knee, but no life-threatening injuries.

"She didn't feel a thing. She found herself in water," Bakari told the RTL station after speaking to her by phone, adding that -- as she told to him -- some others survived the impact with the rough seas, at least for a while.

"She could hear people talking, but in the middle of the night she couldn't see a thing. She managed to hold on to a piece of something."

"She said that, at a point in time, instructions were given to passengers to strap themselves in," added Joyandet, also on RTL radio. "She said that afterwards, she felt something like electricity - that was the term she used."

"And then, very quickly, she found herself in the water hanging on to a piece of the aircraft with which she struggled to stay alive for more than 10 or so hours."

When rescuers emerged in the clear light of day, she was too weak to react.

"We tried to throw a life buoy. She could not grab it. I had to jump in the water to get her," one rescuer told France's Europe 1 radio, saying that she was spotted bobbing in the middle of bodies and debris.

"She was shaking, shaking. We put four covers on her. We gave her hot, sugary water. We simply asked her name, village."

The head of the government crisis cell in the Comoros said the youngster survived astonishing odds. "It is truly, truly, miraculous," said Ibrahim Abdoulazeb. "The young girl can barely swim."

Bakari said his daughter had been told her mother survived the crash.

"When I spoke to her she was asking for her mother. They told her she was in a room next door, so as not to traumatise her. But it's not true. I don't know who is going to tell her."

Joyandet gave the girl's age as 12. Officials have variously said she was 14 or 13, but the minister's spokesman said she would turn 13 on August 15.

He scotched rumours that a second child had been found alive, reported by doctors who said their hospital had been put on alert.

Yemenia airlines, which has come under attack from victims' families angry over its safety record, said it will make an initial payment of 20,000 euros (28,000 dollars) to the families of each victim.

Chairman Abdul Khaleq al-Qadi told reporters in Sanaa the payments would be "a first instalment," without saying when they would begin.

The announcement came amid mounting anger over the condition of the 19-year-old Yemenia jet, which had been banned from France's airspace because of doubts about its safety. Airbus has stopped manufacturing the long-haul plane since 2007.

Comoros Vice President Idi Nadhoim criticised France over the crash, saying Paris should have alerted them that the twin-engine aircraft was unsafe.

"It could have been easier for us if France had communicated to us the list of Airbus planes not good to fly, which is not the case," Nadhoim told France 24 television.

The flight left Paris on Monday for Marseille and Sanaa aboard a modern Airbus A330 before passengers switched to the older Airbus jet to continue to Djibouti and Moroni.

Comorans in Marseille, home to more Comorans than the Indian Ocean state's capital, said the tragedy was waiting to happen.

"We had been sounding the alarm bells, both here and in the Comoros," said Moegni Toahiry, 39, as he stood outside his Comoran consulate hoping for news of his cousin and three children who were on the flight.

Some Comorans staged a protest at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport on Wednesday delaying a Yemenia flight for 40 minutes to highlight what they called poor safety conditions on the planes.

Around 100 protestors forced two Marseille travel agents selling Yemenia tickets to shut down on Wednesday.

A desperate hunt for other survivors continued, with French military headquarters in Paris saying the sound of a rescue beacon had been picked up by a Transall search plane -- but no sign of bodies or major debris.

Airbus, still reeling from the crash of an Air France A330 into the Atlantic on June 1 with 228 people on board, has sent investigators to the Comoros, while a judicial investigation was announced by French prosecutors.

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