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Wreckage of plane with 116 aboard found in Mali

DAKAR, Senegal — An Air Algérie jetliner with 116 people on board crashed early Thursday in a remote area of Mali near the borders with Burkina Faso and Niger, officials said.

Gen. Gilbert Diendéré, the coordinator of the Burkina Faso government’s crisis unit for the missing jet, confirmed late on Thursday that soldiers had found the wreckage of the plane in a semidesert area about 60 miles south of Gao, Mali.

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“We found no survivors,” Diendéré said. “Someone saw the plane fall and alerted us, so we sent a mission there that went to the spot. But we couldn’t examine the wreck because night was falling.” He said the wrecked plane would be examined on Friday.

The general said the crash “must have been because of the weather — there were a lot of storms, and there was lightning.”

Col. Gilles Jaron, a spokesman for the French army, which dispatched warplanes from a base in West Africa to search for the plane, said late Thursday that he could not confirm that any wreckage had been located. “We are continuing the search,” he said.

Flight 5017, took off around 1 a.m. from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, on an overnight run to Algiers. Air controllers lost contact with the plane, an MD-83, less than an hour after takeoff, officials said.

The crash comes at a time when the aviation industry is already reeling from the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine last Thursday, the crash of TransAsia Airways Flight 222 in Taiwan on Wednesday and the suspension of flights to and from Tel Aviv this week because of rocket fire from Gaza. The Federal Aviation Administration lifted its ban on U.S. flights to Israel overnight.

The Air Algérie plane’s usual route northward would have taken it over large desert areas where Islamic militant groups have been active, including northern Mali, which was overrun by al-Qaida’s North African affiliate in 2012. When French and African troops drove the militants back out of towns there last year, the militants left behind stacks of manuals explaining in detail how to use SA-7a and SA-7b shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, which can shoot down an airliner flying low for takeoff or landing. But those militants are not known to possess heavier weapons that could strike an aircraft at cruising altitude.

A screengrab of the homepage of the Ouagadougou airport’s Internet site showed a map displaying the plane’s last contact zone on Thursday.

REUTERS/Ouagadougou airport

A screengrab of the homepage of the Ouagadougou airport’s Internet site showed a map displaying the plane’s last contact zone on Thursday.

During the day on Thursday, many officials were at pains to say only that the plane was missing, though the operating assumption all day was that it had crashed.

Nearly half the passengers on the plane were from France, which once ruled the region as a colonial power and which still has extensive political and economic interests and a military presence in West Africa. President François Hollande canceled a trip to the French island territories of Reunion, Comoros and Mayotte and called his Cabinet together in Paris for an emergency meeting Thursday afternoon, saying that France would mobilize “all its resources,” civilian and military, to find the missing jet.

“We still don’t know what happened,” he said. “What we know is that the crew signaled at 1:48 a.m. that it was changing direction because of a particularly difficult weather situation.”

The Burkina Faso government said that the aircraft’s last contact with ground control came a few minutes after it had passed northward out of the country’s air space. It said the crew contacted air traffic controllers in Niamey, Niger, at 1:47 a.m. local time, and informed them that the plane had encountered rough weather.

Residents of northern Mali reported a heavy sandstorm overnight. “There was a lot of damage from the wind, especially in the region of Kidal,” said Kata Data Alhousseini Maiga, an official with the U.N. mission in Gao, Mali. “The sand was so thick that you couldn’t see.”

Moumouni Barro, Burkina Faso’s director of airports, said in a telephone interview from Ouagadougou that a resident of Gossi, a village in Mali between Mopti and Gao, near the border with Burkina Faso, “saw the plane fall from the sky” southeast of the town during a storm around 1:50 a.m.

The deputy mayor of Gossi, Louis Berthaud, said in a telephone interview: “People saw the plane fall. It was shepherds. About 65 miles from here. The shepherds saw the plane fall.”

The plane belonged to a Spanish company, Swiftair, and was operated by Air Algérie. Swiftair confirmed in a statement that it had lost contact with the plane, and said it was carrying 110 passengers and a crew of six.

Officials gave slightly varying counts of the nationalities of the passengers on the flight during the day. The government statement listed 51 French citizens, 27 people from Burkina Faso, eight Lebanese, six Algerians, five Canadians, four Germans, two people from Luxembourg, and one each from Switzerland, Belgium, Egypt, Ukraine, Nigeria, Cameroon and Mali. Lebanese officials gave a higher figure, 10, for their citizens on the plane, and the Spanish pilots’ union said all six crew members were Spanish, news agencies reported.

Swiftair said on Thursday that the jet, bearing the tail number EC-LTV, was built by McDonnell Douglas in 1996. The company, which merged with Boeing in 1997, stopped building the MD-80 series of planes the following year, but hundreds of the aircraft remain in wide use around the world. According to Ascend, an aviation consultancy in London, Swiftair owns five MD-83 jets, and leased two of them to Air Algérie in June.

Air Algérie’s last major accident was in 2003, when Flight 6289, a Boeing 737, crashed shortly after takeoff from Tamanrasset in southern Algeria on its way to Algiers. Mechanical failure was blamed for the crash, which killed 102 people. More recently, an Algerian C-130 Hercules military transport plane bound for Constantine in the northeast crashed into a mountainside in February, killing 77 of the 78 people on board. Strong winds and poor visibility were blamed.

ared with a global rate of once accident for every 2.4 million flights, IATA said in April.

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