By Marwa Awad
LUXOR, Egypt (Reuters) - At least 19 people, most of them Asian and European tourists, died on Tuesday when a hot air balloon crashed near the ancient Egyptian town of Luxor after a mid-air gas explosion, officials said.
The balloon came down in farmland a few kilometers (miles) from the Valley of the Kings and pharaonic temples that draw tourists to Luxor. Rescue workers gathered the dead from the field where the charred remains of the balloon, gas canisters and other pieces of wreckage landed.
One Egyptian was also killed, Health Minister Mohamed Mostafa Hamed told Reuters, listing the other victims as tourists from Japan, China, France, Britain and Hungary. Earlier, officials had said all the dead were foreigners.
The pilot survived by jumping from the basket when it was 10-15 meters (yards) from the ground, said Ahmed Aboud, head of an association representing Luxor balloon operators. Two other survivors, both British, were treated at Luxor hospital, said Mohamed Mustafa, a doctor at the hospital.
Travel firm Thomas Cook later said one of the Britons taken to the hospital had died, taking the number of British tourists killed to three. The fatalities were caused by burns and by the impact, Mustafa said.
"We believe a small number of British nationals are involved in an incident in Luxor this morning," Britain's Foreign Office said in an emailed statement. The Japanese embassy in Cairo said it believed four Japanese had been aboard and had sent staff to Luxor to confirm this. France's foreign ministry said two French citizens had been killed.
Aboud said the blast had happened in the pipe linking the gas canisters to the burner. He said that it was an accident.
Transport accidents are frequent in Egypt. Dozens of children were killed in November when the bus they were on collided with a train. Accidents affecting foreign tourists are rarer, but not unusual. Five Germans were killed in December in a bus crash near a Red Sea resort.
Konny Matthews, assistant manager of Luxor's Al Moudira hotel, said she heard an explosion at about 7 a.m. (0500 GMT). "It was a huge bang. It was a frightening bang, even though it was several kilometers away from the hotel," she said by phone. "Some of my employees said that their homes were shaking."
The balloon crashed on the west bank of the Nile river, where many of the major historical sites are located.
A LOUD EXPLOSION
U.S. photographer Christopher Michel, who was on board another balloon, told Britain's Sky News television that the balloon was one of eight flying at the time. "We heard a loud explosion behind us. I looked back and saw lots of smoke. It wasn't immediately clear that it was a balloon," he said.
Hot air ballooning at dawn is popular with tourists, who are a mainstay of the Egyptian economy, although visitor numbers have fallen sharply since a 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. Two years of political instability have kept away many foreign tourists.
Tourism accounted for more than a 10th of Egypt's gross domestic product before the revolt. In 2010, about 14.7 million visitors came to Egypt, but this slumped to 9.8 million the next year.
Wael Ibrahim, head of the tour guides' syndicate in Luxor, said he did not expect the accident to make the situation worse for tour operators in the area than it already was. "We've already been affected badly in Egypt," he said.
Some tourists may be more wary of activities like hot air ballooning, he said, but added: "This (type of) accident could happen anywhere in the world."
Last year a balloon plunged to the ground in flames in Slovenia, killing four people and injuring 28.
Egyptian Civil Aviation Minister Wael el-Maadawi said a committee from the ministry was heading to Luxor to investigate the incident. He said hot air balloon flights would be stopped until an investigation into the cause of the accident.
"We cannot say whether this was because of maintenance or human (error) until the investigation committee is completely done with its investigation," he told Al Jazeera TV's Egyptian channel.
(Reporting by Tom Perry, Alexander Dziadosz, Shaimaa Fayed and Asma Alsharif in Cairo, Michael Holden and Estelle Shirbon in London and Vicky Buffery in Paris; Editing by Louise Ireland)