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February 26, 2013

Balloon crash in Egypt's Luxor kills 19 tourists

LUXOR, Egypt (AP) — A hot air balloon carrying tourists over Egypt's ancient city of Luxor caught fire Tuesday, and some passengers trying to escape the flames leaped to their deaths before the craft crashed in a sugar cane field. At least 19 tourists were killed in one of the world's deadliest ballooning accidents.

The accident was a new blow to Egypt's tourism industry, which has been gutted by the country's turmoil the past two years. The southern city of Luxor, site of some of the most dramatic pharaonic temples, has been particularly hard hit, with empty hotels worsening the area's poverty.

After the early morning crash, authorities suspended hot air balloon flights, a popular tourist attraction here, while investigators worked to determine the cause. The crash raised accusations that authorities have let safety standards fall amid the political instability since the 2011 fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak — though the civil aviation chief insisted his ministry keeps stringent inspections of balloons.

The balloon was carrying 20 tourists — from France, Britain, Belgium, Hungary, Japan and Hong Kong — and an Egyptian pilot on a sunrise flight over Luxor, officials said.

According to initial indications, it was in the process of landing after 7 a.m. when a landing cable got caught around a helium tube and a fire erupted, according to an investigator with the state prosecutor's office.

The balloon then shot up in the air, the investigator said. The fire set off an explosion of a gas canister and the balloon plunged some 300 meters (1,000 feet) to the ground, according to an Egyptian security official. It crashed in a sugar cane field outside al-Dhabaa village just west of Luxor, 510 kilometers (320 miles) south of Cairo, the official said.

The official and the investigator spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

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