World Africa

Wreckage of missing Air Algerie flight may have been found in Mali

An Air Algerie flight carrying 116 has disappeared from radar on a flight from Burkina Faso, reports say
The route of the missing Algerian airliner would have taken it over northern Mali, where militants operate
United Nations and French crews searching for Air Algerie plane that vanished from radar over West Africa

An Algerian flight carrying 110 passengers and six crew members disappeared early Thursday and is believed to have crashed during a storm over northern Africa.

There were conflicting reports about the location of the plane, and whether the wreckage had been located. Officials in Burkina Faso and Algeria told the Associated Press that the plane had been found, and Burkina Faso officials said it had been located in a remote region near a small village in southeastern Mali.

Officials in France and at the Spanish airline SwiftAir, which owns the plane, would not confirm those reports as of late Thursday.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Thursday evening that despite extensive searches, “no traces of the plane have been found.” He said it was “probable” that the plane had crashed, but could not be more precise.

French Mirage-2000 planes and helicopters had been searching a vast area for wreckage: The search had been concentrating on the largely deserted, mountainous and inaccessible region of Gao in northern Mali, a disputed area boiling with tension. About 1,600 French troops have been based in Mali since early 2013 as part of an operation to drive Islamist extremists from the country.

Air Algerie Flight 5017 dropped off radar screens about 50 minutes after taking off from Burkina Faso en route to Algiers, without sending any distress signals.

Shortly before the plane vanished from the screens, the captain asked permission to depart from his planned route because of heavy storms and poor visibility over northern Mali. The plane is believed to have crashed shortly after making the diversion.

At least 50 of the passengers are French, with the rest comprising 13 other nationalities, including Canadian, German and Algerian.

The disappearance of the plane came seven days after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing 298 people, and one day after a TransAsia Airways flight in Taiwan crashed in bad weather, killing 48 people.

Officials in Burkina Faso, Algeria and France said no theories on the cause of the disappearance had been ruled out, including a terrorist bombing or hijacking. However, there was doubt that Islamist forces linked to Al Qaeda or ethnic Tuareg separatists known to operate in northern Mali were in possession of missiles powerful enough to shoot down the plane.

French President Francois Hollande conducted a crisis meeting at the Elysee Palace late Thursday afternoon and postponed a planned official visit to the Indian Ocean. He will hold another emergency meeting of ministers Friday morning.

Hollande pledged “all military and civilian means” to establish what happened to the plane.

“Everything we know leads us to believe this aircraft has crashed in Mali,” Hollande said.

“The search will go on for as long as necessary and everything will be done to find this aircraft,” he said. “My thoughts are with the anguished families and friends waiting at airports, and I express our solidarity, the solidarity of the nation. It is a moment of pain for the families and friends of 118 people, 51 of whom are our compatriots.”

The plane, an MD-83 manufactured by McDonnell Douglas, had taken off from the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou, and had a nearly straight route to the Algerian capital.

The flight took off from Burkina Faso at 1:17 a.m. Thursday but its disappearance was not made public until several hours after it didn't make its 6:10 a.m. scheduled arrival in Algiers.

By Thursday evening, identities of passengers had not been released.

Air Algerie had leased the plane from a Spanish company, SwiftAir, and the six crew members were Spanish.

France's air safety control body, the Civil Aviation Authority, said the plane had been checked in Marseilles a few days ago and was declared airworthy and “in a good condition.”

Special correspondents Willsher reported from Paris and Hassan from Cairo. Times staff writer Laura King in Cairo contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

July 24, 4:50 p.m. This story has been updated throughout with new details.

July 24, 12:42 p.m.: This story has been updated to include search and rescue information from the United Nations mission in Mali.

July 24, 11:06 a.m.: This story has been updated to include statements from the French president and foreign minister.

July 24, 8:51 a.m.: This story has been updated to include information about the plane's possible location, and comments from officials of SwiftAir, France and Burkina Faso.

This article was originally posted at 5:31 a.m.

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