Lao Deputy Prime Minister Douangchay Phichit, Minister of Public Security Thongbanh Sengaphone, and two other high-ranking officials were among 17 people killed in a military plane crash at the weekend, the government said, leaving a power vacuum in the authoritarian one-party administration.
Douangchay, who is also Defense Minister and a rising political star, and the other officials were traveling on a Ukrainian-made Antonov AN-74TK-300 aircraft to attend a commemoration ceremony in Xiengkhuang province on Saturday morning when it crashed while approaching an airport, according to reports.
"They passed away because of the accident of the Lao Air Force AN-74TK-300 aircraft on 17 May at 7:00 a.m. in Nadee village, Paek district of Xiengkhuang Province," the official Lao news agency KPL said in a dispatch.
"The cause of the accident is under investigation by concerned authorities," it said, giving little information about the crash in an area bordering northwestern Vietnam.
The plane was around 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) away from Xiangkhoung airport, near one of Laos' major archaeological sites, the Plain of Jars, when it crashed, the state-owned Vientiane Times reported.
The officials were on their way to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the "strategic gains" made by the Lao military during the Indochina War in May 18, 1959, the report said.
Photos taken from the crash site showed the aircraft had gone down in a forest area and was severely damaged, leaving a large amount of debris on the site, it said.
Foreign news agencies initially confirmed the crash through officials in neighboring Thailand, which enjoys close ties with Laos, whose government maintains strict media controls and tolerates almost no opposition.
Aside from Douangchay and Thongbanh, the KPL agency identified the other officials who perished as capital city Vientiane Mayor Soukanh Mahalath and the ruling Lao People's Revolutionary Party Propaganda Chief Cheuang Sombounkhanh.
Douangchay's wife Thanda Phichit and some of his close aides also died in the accident, though three people, including a flight attendant, reportedly survived, sources in Vientiane told The Nation, a leading Thai newspaper.
Douangchay, aged 69, was in the politburo of the central committee of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party, which has ruled Laos since 1975. The other three officials were in the central committee of the nation's all-powerful party.
Rising political star
Douangchay was regarded as the second generation of Lao leaders and is believed to have climbed the political ladder quickly following the footsteps of President Choummaly Sayasone, according to The Nation.
He entered the Politburo, the inner circle of the ruling party, and took the defense portfolio in 2001.
The sudden deaths of Douangchay and Thongbanh have dealt a blow to the government and the ruling party, reports said.
"It seems inevitable that the deaths of these officials, especially the two ministers, will have an impact on the power structure of the party and in Laos more generally," the Associated Press quoted Simon Creak, a historian of Laos and Southeast Asia at Japan's Kyoto University, as saying.
"Especially with the next party congress, which will select the next generation of leaders, less than two years away."
The crash is the second in Laos in seven months.
In October last year a Lao Airlines ATR-72 turboprop plunged into the Mekong River in bad weather as it approached Pakse Airport in southern Laos, killing all 49 people on board.
Reported by RFA's Lao Service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.