A military transport plane slammed into a field near the Algerian capital on Wednesday, killing at least 257 people in the North African nation’s worst aviation disaster.
It was not immediately clear what caused the crash, which occurred shortly after takeoff from the Boufarik military airport, 16 miles southwest of Algiers. The army’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah, went to inspect the site and ordered an investigation, the Ministry of National Defense said in a statement.
The victims included 247 passengers — most of them soldiers and their families — and 10 crew members, the statement said. There was no mention of any survivors.
The Polisario Front, an Algerian-backed movement that seeks independence from Morocco for the Western Sahara region, said 30 of its people were among those killed. They were refugees, including women and children, who had received treatment in Algerian hospitals, the group told the Associated Press.
Victims’ remains were being transported to a military hospital in the town of Ain Naadja for identification.
Algeria’s Ennahar TV showed images of dozens of ambulances arrayed in a verdant field, as cranes leaned over the blackened fuselage to remove wreckage. Dozens of body bags were lined up on the ground.
Three witnesses said they saw flames coming from one of the plane’s engines as it took off around 8 a.m. The Russian-made Ilyushin-76 transport plane appeared to swerve to the right to avoid a populated area before it crashed in an empty agricultural field, several people said.
Mohammed Slimani, who works at a school in the nearby town of Blida, said he heard an explosion and raced to the scene.
“The wreckage was engulfed in a fireball,” he said. “The rescue crew from the air force base arrived 10 minutes after the crash and started to extinguish the fire and retrieve the bodies.”
Thick black smoke billowed from the crash site as scores of firefighters and other rescue personnel crowded around the wreckage.
The plane was headed to the remote border town of Tindouf, the site of refugee camps for people fleeing the decades-long conflict in the Western Sahara, before traveling on to the city of Bechar, in Algeria’s southwest.
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika declared three days of national mourning.
The toll Wednesday surpassed what had been the nation’s deadliest aviation accident, when in July 2014 an Air Algerie flight from Burkina Faso to Algeria slammed into the Malian desert. All 118 passengers and crew were killed.
In February of that year, another Algerian military transport plane, an American-built C-130 Hercules turboprop carrying at least 78 people, crashed in mountainous terrain in the northeastern province of Oum El Bouaghi. One person survived.
In 2003, an Air Algerie jet crashed on takeoff from Tamanrasset in southern Algeria, killing all but one of the 103 people aboard.
Special correspondent Kharief reported from Blida and Times staff writer Zavis from Beirut. Special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Beirut contributed to this report.
2:30 p.m: This article was updated with additional witness accounts.
10:20 a.m.: This article was updated with the Polisario Front saying 30 of its people were among the dead, the declaration of three days of national mourning, and other details.
5:50 a.m.: This article was updated with staff reporting, including the toll rising to 257.
This article was originally published at 2:55 a.m.