Chile extends search zone for missing plane

Punta Arenas (Chile) (AFP) - The Chilean government on Wednesday widened the search for an Air Force plane with 38 people aboard that went missing off the southern tip of South America.

At least 15 planes and five ships have been deployed in the search of the Drake Passage for the Antarctica-bound Hercules C-130 plane that went missing late Monday.

"The Armed Forces are placing all our efforts into finding the missing C-130," Eduardo Mosqueira, commander of Chile's IV Air Brigade, told reporters in Punta Arenas.

Mosquiera said a decision had been taken Wednesday to widen the search zone as visibility and conditions were favorable.

Search vessels and planes from the United States, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile were now combing nearly 1,000 square kilometers of the Drake Passage, a tempestuous body of water south of Cape Horn and north of Antartica.

The C-130 Hercules cargo plane vanished after departing its Punta Arenas air base on Monday at 4:55 pm (19:55 GMT) en route to Chile's Antarctic base of Eduardo Frei, officials said.

Contact was lost with the plane at 6:13 pm (2130 GMT), the Chilean Air Force said, adding that the plane had enough fuel to remain in the air for several hours beyond that time.

"We still don't have any new information, but we are making every effort to be able to find the plane," government spokeswoman Karla Rubilar told Chilean radio.

The Vatican said Pope Francis was following the situation closely and keeping the families of the missing in his prayers.

Family members were gathering in the far southern city of Punta Arenas, 3,000 kilometers south of the capital Santiago, to be close to the rescue effort.

Most of those aboard the missing plane are air force personnel, but also include three people from the army, two from a private construction company and an official from a Chilean university.

Many of them were traveling to carry out logistical support tasks at the Eduardo Frei base.