Salvage workers gather at the scene of a United Nations plane crash in Democratic Republic of Congo's capital Kinshasa. Thirty-two people were killed and one survived when a UN plane crashed while trying to land at the airport serving Kinshasa, a UN spokesman said. Photo: AP

Three South African men were among the 32 UN officials and peacekeepers killed when a plane crashed on landing in heavy rain in the Democratic Republic of Congo capital Kinshasa.

Only one person survived the crash in Kinshasa on Monday, UN deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq said at the world body’s headquarters.

The Department of International Relations and Co-operation confirmed that the sole survivor was not South African and that the three who died in the air crash were in the employ of the UN, but were not soldiers.

Of the 33 passengers, 20 were UN employees.

“The South African government can confirm that there were three South Africans on board the UN plane in the DRC. Unfortunately they were all killed. We have the names of the South Africans who died in the crash but have to first inform the families,” said department spokesman Clayson Monyela.

South Africa has played a key role in the DRC’s transition from decades of civil war towards peace and democracy, supporting the UN mission with a rotating contingent of at least 1 500 soldiers.

This is one of the worst disasters ever involving UN transport.

The plane was carrying UN officials and peackeepers travelling from the north-eastern city of Kisangani to Kinshasa’s N’Djili Airport, the UN mission known as Monusco said.

UN spokesman in Kinshasa George Oladavies said they could not confirm the identities of any of the dead as they needed to tally the bodies against the manifest.

This morning UN investigators were still trying to determine the cause of the accident.

“The black box, which has been retrieved, will tell us the rest of the story,” said Oladavies.

An airport source said soon after the crash 26 people had died on the plane and that rescuers and firefighters had “cut out seats to free people trapped inside”.

It was not clear when the other six passengers died.

“The accident was caused by the rain,” she said. “The plane broke up completely. A part of the cockpit rolled along the ground for 800m.” The Fokker 100 aircraft burst into flames on crashing but firefighters managed to put out the fire quickly, aided by the heavy rains, she said.

The US has voiced its condolences. “We’re deeply saddened to learn of the loss of life in the UN-contracted plane that was flying into Kinshasa,” State Department spokeperson Mark Toner said.

Aircraft accidents are common in Congo but this was the first involving a plane from Monusco, officially called the UN Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The UN has a fleet of more than a dozen planes in the country with which the mission transports its personnel, journalists and staff of international and local non-governmental organisations.

Plane accidents are common in war-scarred Congo, and all the country’s aviation companies, about 50, are blacklisted by the EU and barred from its airspace.

Accidents are caused by a combination of factors including that old and dilapidated planes are often overloaded with freight, operators flout safety rules and bad weather.

The UN has one of its biggest peace missions in the vast central African country, five times the size of France.