Missing Algerian airliner over Mali 'probably crashed'

24th July 2014, Comments 0 comments

An Air Algerie plane missing since early Thursday over Mali with 116 passengers and crew, including some 50 French nationals, on board probably crashed, French President Francois Hollande said.

Speaking on French television, Hollande said: "Everything leads us to believe that the plane has crashed."

He said the plane's Spanish crew had signalled they were altering course "due to particularly difficult weather conditions".

He vowed to deploy all of France's military means in Mali, where it has hundreds of troops, to track down the wreckage of the missing plane.

Flight AH5017, which originated in Ouagadougou and was bound for Algiers, went missing amid reports of heavy storms, company sources and officials said.

"Contact was lost with the McDonnell Douglas 83 at 1:47, a little after the pilots said they were diverting from the route due to meteorological reasons," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.

Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal was earlier cited as saying by Algerian radio that the plane dropped off the radar at Gao, 500 kilometres (300 miles) from the Algerian border.

The airline said it had 50 French, 24 Burkinabe, eight Lebanese, six Algerians, six Spanish, five Canadians, four Germans and two Luxembourg nationals on board.

Fabius said there were 51 French on board.

Four countries were taking part in the search for the Air Algerie plane.

Mali, Algeria, Niger and France were coordinating their efforts under the umbrella of the French-led military intervention in Mali, Operation Serval.

"Even though the aircraft was above Mali it was in airspace managed by the control centre in Niamey in Niger," an air traffic control offical told AFP.

- Poor visibility -

A witness later reported seeing the plane "falling" in the region of Gossi, in northern Mali, the head of the emergency investigation into the flight said.

"A witness informed us they had seen the plane falling at 0150 (GMT and local time Thursday)," said General Gilbert Diendiere, coordinator of the crisis unit in Ouagadougou.

"We believe this information is accurate as we have compared it to radar images showing the flight path until the plane disappeared," Diendiere said.

The witness had indicated the plane may have crashed 80 kilometres (50 miles) southeast of the town of Gossi, "and that is where we will strengthen our search", Diendiere added.

Aviation sources told AFP the MD-83 was leased from Spanish company Swiftair.

Its six-member crew were all Spanish, said Spain's airline pilots' union Sepla, and Swiftair confirmed the aircraft went missing less than an hour after takeoff.

The plane had apparently been given the "all clear" following an inspection in France only this week, the French civil aviation authority DGAC said.

In France, two crisis units had been set up, at the DGAC and at the foreign ministry, DGAC said, in addition to another two at Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airport in Paris and at Marseille airport.

DGAC said that many passengers had been due to catch onward connecting flights to Paris and Marseille.

In Mali, the prime minister's office also said contact was lost around Gao.

"The plane was not far from the Algerian frontier when the crew was asked to make a detour because of poor visibility and to prevent the risk of collision with another aircraft on the Algiers-Bamako route," an airline source said.

"Contact was lost after the change of course."

- 'Emergency plan' -

A controller in Mali, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the area was rocked by "strong storms" overnight.

Air Algerie, in a statement carried by national news agency APS, said it had initiated an "emergency plan" in the search for AH5017, which flies the four-hour passenger route four times a week.

The search comes less than six months after one of Algeria's worst air disasters.

In February, a C-130 military aircraft carrying 78 people crashed in poor weather in the mountainous northeast, killing more than 70 people.

The plane had been flying from the desert garrison town of Tamanrasset in Algeria's deep south to Constantine, 320 kilometres (200 miles) east of Algiers.

Tamanrasset was the site of the country's worst-ever civilian air disaster, in March 2003.

In that accident, all but one of the 103 people on board were killed when an Air Algerie Boeing 737-200 crashed on takeoff after one of its engines caught fire.

The sole survivor, a young Algerian soldier, was critically injured.

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© 2014 AFP

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