LAHORE          -          At least 16 people died and dozens others wounded critically when an Air India Express passenger plane repatriating Indians stranded by the COVID-19 pandemic skidded off the runway in heavy rain near the southern city of Kozhikode, officials said.

The Boeing-737 flight from Dubai to Calicut airport was carrying 190 passengers and crew, the civil aviation ministry said in a statement. Among them were 10 infants.

Local TV channels; footage showed rescue workers moving around the wreckage in pouring rain. The aircraft lay split into at least two chunks after the plane’s fuselage sheared apart as it fell into a valley 30 feet below, authorities said.

Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri tweeted, “Unfortunately, 16 people have lost their lives. I offer my condolences to their next of kin and pray for speedy recovery of the injured.”

Friday’s crash is the worst passenger aircraft accident in the country since 2010, when an Air India Express flight, also from Dubai, overshot the runway and slid down a hill while landing in the southern Indian city of Mangalore, killing 158 people. Both Mangalore and Calicut have table-top runways that are located at an altitude and have steep drops at one or both ends of the runway.

Media reports suggested the plane skidded off the runway of Calicut international airport, crashing nose-first into the ground. Calicut is in the southern state of Kerala, home to a large number of Indians working in the Middle East.

Puri said rescue operations had been completed and all passengers were removed from the aircraft. Police said earlier four people were stuck in the wreckage. The civil aviation ministry said in a statement there was no fire on board. India, which shut down all air travel in late March to try to contain the novel coronavirus, restarted limited international air travel.