Poor weather was the most likely cause of the crash of an Air Algerie flight in the West African state of Mali that killed all 116 people on board, French officials said on Friday.
Investigators at the scene of the crash in northern Mali concluded the airliner broke apart when it hit the ground, the officials said, suggesting this meant it was unlikely to have been the victim of an attack. "French soldiers who are on the ground have started the first investigations. Sadly there are no survivors," French President Francois Hollande told reporters.
A column of 100 soldiers and 30 vehicles from the French force stationed in the region arrived early on Friday morning to secure the crash site near the northern Mali town of Gossi and recover bodies, a Defence Ministry official said.
Hollande said one of the black box flight recorders had already been recovered and would be analysed quickly. "The plane's debris is concentrated in a small area, but it is too early to draw conclusions," Hollande said of the wreckage of the plane carrying 51 French nationals that crashed near the border with Burkina Faso, from where it had taken off.
"The are theories, especially the weather, but I'm not excluding any theory." Aviation officials lost contact of flight AH5017 at around 0155 GMT on Thursday, less than an hour after taking off for Algeria, following a request by the pilot to change course due to bad weather.
"The aircraft was destroyed at the moment it crashed," Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told RTL radio.
Another plane crash is likely to add to nerves over flying a week after a Malaysia Airlines plane was downed over Ukraine, and a TransAsia Airways plane crashed off Taiwan during a thunderstorm on Wednesday. International airlines also temporarily cancelled flights into Tel Aviv this week, citing security concerns amid the instability in Gaza.
Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier said the strong smell of aircraft fuel at the crash site and the fact that the debris was scattered over a relatively small area also suggested the cause of the crash was linked to weather, a technical problem or a cumulation of such factors.
"We exclude - and have done so from the start - any ground strike," Cuvillier told France 2 television. Malian President Ebrahim Boubacar Keita was due to visit the crash site later on Friday.
France deployed troops to Mail last year to halt an Al Qaeda-backed insurgency and has about 1,600 soldiers based in Mali predominantly in the northern city of Gao.
Other than the French nationals, Burkina Faso authorities said the passenger list included 27 Burkinabe, eight Lebanese, six Algerians, five Canadians, four Germans, two from Luxembourg, one Cameroonian, one Belgian, one Egyptian, one Ukranian, one Swiss, one Nigerian and one Malian.
Spanish private airline company Swiftair, which owned the plane, said the six crew were Spanish. It confirmed in a statement on Friday that the
wreckage of the plane had been found in Mali without survivors, adding it was too early to talk about the causes of the accident.
Investigators have concluded the Air Algerie flight with 116 people on board broke apart when it hit the ground, French officials said on Friday, suggesting this meant it was unlikely to have been the victim of an attack.
"The aircraft was destroyed at the moment it crashed," Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told RTL radio of the wreckage of the plane carrying 51 French nationals, which crashed in Mali near the border with Burkina Faso on Thursday.
"We think the aircraft crashed for reasons linked to the weather conditions, although no theory can be excluded at this point," he added.
Separately, Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier said the strong smell of aircraft fuel at the crash site and the fact that the debris was scattered over a relatively small area also suggested the cause of the crash was linked to weather, a technical problem or a cumulation of such factors.
Air Algerie plane wreckage found in Mali
The wreckage of plane has been found in Mali near the border with Burkina Faso. A statement from the ElysEe Palace in Paris said the aircraft had been "clearly identified in a state of disintegration". It said a contingent of French troops stationed in Mali were on their way to secure the site, in the region of Gossi, southwest of the northern Malian town of Gao.
There were 51 French nationals among the people onboard the Boeing MD-83, operated by Spanish charter specialist Swiftair. President Francois Hollande said on Thursday evening it was not possible to say what caused the crash. "All we know is that the crew signalled it wanted to change direction because of particularly difficult weather conditions," he said.
He added he was postponing a trip to the French territory of Reunion he had been due to start on Thursday evening. Malian state television said The broadcast said President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita would visit the crash site today.
Civil aviation safety has been in the spotlight in recent months following the apparent shooting down of Malaysia Airlines MH17 over eastern Ukraine last week and the disappearance of another Malaysian Flight MH370 without trace in early March. On Wednesday a crash involving a Taiwanese airliner left 48 people dead, while many airlines temporarily halted flights to Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport after warnings from US and EU air safety regulators because of the conflict in Gaza.
Swiftair said Air Algerie Flight AH5017 took off from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, at 1.17am GMT and was due to land in Algiers at 5.10am.
Jean Bertin Ouedraogo, Burkina Faso's transport minister, said the pilots asked to change route at 1.38am because of a storm in the area. The aircraft was in the Gao region of Mali when contact was lost, the airline said. Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, told a short media briefing in the late afternoon that two French Mirage fighter jets had been deployed to help look for the airliner which had "probably crashed".
"Despite intensive searches we haven't found any traces of the aeroplane," he said. "If this catastrophe is confirmed it will be a great tragedy that will hit our nation and many others as well."
Frederic Cuvillier, the transport minister, said it was "far too early" to say what had happened to the aircraft.
There were 110 passengers, two pilots and four cabin crew on board the 18-year old aircraft. The Spanish pilots union said the pilots and crew were Spanish. Mr Fabius said that in addition to the French passengers there were people from 14 other nationalities on board. Kara Terki, an Air Algerie official in Burkina Faso, said the passengers included 24 Burkinabe, eight Lebanese, four Algerians, two from Luxembourg, one Belgian, one Swiss, one Nigerian, one Cameroonian, one Ukrainian and one Romanian.
Lebanese officials said there were at least 10 Lebanese citizens on the flight. Swiftair said it was still "working to find out what has happened", while Algeria's official news agency said Air Algerie had "launched its emergency plan". Mr Fabius said the relatives of people believed to be on board had been contacted.
In June, the US Federal Aviation Administration, the country's chief aviation regulator, banned US airlines from flying below 24,000ft over Mali because of concerns about "small arms, rocket-propelled grenades, rockets and mortars and anti-aircraft fire". It also warned of the danger from shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.
Mr Cuvillier said earlier a crisis centre had been set up by the French civil aviation authority to gain more information, adding the airliner had disappeared over northern Mali. France still has a large contingent of troops in Mali where it continues to lead operations against Islamist militant groups it routed last year in a military intervention to prevent them from overthrowing the country's government.
This month a French soldier was killed in a suicide bombing in northern Mali.
Swiftair, established in 1986 and based in Madrid, began flying passenger charter flights in 2002, according to its website. It has a fleet of more than 30 aircraft, including several MD-83s, and employs more than 400 people. It has an aviation company in Greece and a handling company in Morocco.
Air accident rates in Africa last year were five times the global average, although there is less flying on the continent compared to other regions.
Last year, the global accident rate - as measured in aircraft losses per million flights involving western-built passenger jets - was 0.41, according to the International Air Transport Association, the industry trade body. This rate is the equivalent of one accident for every 2.4m flights.
However, Africa had an accident rate of 2.03. That was an improvement on 2012, and Iata and other aviation bodies are working to improve flight safety further in Africa.
Air Algerie's last big accident was in March 2003, when a Boeing 737 crashed during a domestic flight from Tamanrasset in southern Algeria to Gharda'a in northern Algeria, killing all but one of the 103 people on board, according to data from the Aviation Safety Network.