Military plane crashes in South Africa
02:33 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Rescue crews scouring the area for survivors

Mandela, 94, has not appeared in public since 2010

He gets round-the-clock care after abdominal surgery this year

Johannesburg, South Africa CNN  — 

A South African military plane crashed in the mountains as it headed to an airport near the rural hometown of Nelson Mandela, authorities said Thursday.

A military spokesman declined to comment on the plane’s mission or the number of people aboard, but said rescuers are searching for survivors.

Local media reported that the plane, which had taken off from a Pretoria airbase Wednesday night, was carrying a team of doctors responsible for the former president’s health care.

However, two sources close to Mandela said the passengers aboard the plane were not doctors for the anti-apartheid icon.

Rescue crews found the wreckage around the Drakensberg mountains, but it is too early to tell what happened, said Siphiwe Dlamini, the spokesman for the defense department.

It was headed to an airport in Mthatha, the spokesman said. The small town is about 20 miles (30 kilometers) from the Qunu village where Mandela now lives.

Mandela, 94, has not appeared in public since the 2010 World Cup hosted by South Africa.

The former president gets round-the-clock care after abdominal surgery this year and an acute respiratory infection in 2011.

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate spent 27 years in prison for fighting against oppression of blacks in South Africa. He became the nation’s first black president in 1994, four years after he was freed from prison.

Despite his rare appearances, Mandela retains his popularity and is considered a hero of democracy in the nation.

CNN’s Robyn Curnow contributed from South Africa and Faith Karimi from Atlanta