Nigerian Leader Orders Tighter Air Safety

Nigeria's president on Tuesday ordered stricter safety and maintenance procedures for all Nigerian aircraft and promised an exhaustive probe into the cause of a weekend plane crash that killed 117 people.

Making his first public appearance since the accident late Saturday and death of his wife only hours afterward, a somber President Olusegun Obasanjo told Nigeria in a televised broadcast that he rued the pair of "tragic events."

"I have already ordered a full and thorough investigation into the cause of the air crash with a view to ensuring that this sort of calamity does not repeat itself," said Obasanjo.

"In addition, I have directed the aviation ministry to ensure strict compliance with maintenance and operational requirements and standards for all aircraft in order to plug loopholes and ensure passenger safety," he said.

The Bellview Airlines Boeing 737-200 had just left the airport at Lagos, Nigeria's biggest city, for the capital, Abuja, when it crashed near Lissa, about 30 miles north of the airport.

Initial reports indicated the plane lost contact with the control tower five minutes after taking off and state radio said pilots issued a distress call before the plane disappeared from radar.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday that it sent a five-member team to assist in the investigation of the crash. The announcement came a day after Nigeria asked for U.S. help in the probe.

The 50-minute flight to Abuja was a popular route among Nigerians and expatriates. Airline officials said 117 people were on board - 111 passengers and six crew members.

The nationalities of all those aboard were not immediately known, but most were believed to be Nigerians. A U.S. Army major assigned to the Office of Defense Cooperation at the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria was among them, U.S. military officials said Tuesday. He was identified as Maj. Joseph J. Haydon, 40, of Fredericksburg, Va.

Obasanjo's 59-year old wife, Stella, died early Sunday after undergoing treatment earlier in the week at a cosmetic surgery clinic in the Spanish resort town of Marbella. Coroners performed an autopsy, but there was no word on the exact cause of death. Her body was returned to Nigeria late Tuesday.

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