Officials: Missing Air Algerie plane from West Africa has crashed


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ALGIERS -- An Air Algerie flilght carrying 116 people crashed today in the desolate Sahel region of north Africa as it approached Algier en route from Burkina Faso, marking the third major civil-aviation incident in a week.

Burkino Faso Transport Minister Jean Bertin Ouedrago said the plane’s flight crew had asked to change route at 1:38 GMT because of a storm in the area.

"Everything allows us to believe this plane crashed in Mali," French President Francois Hollande said in a statement after an emergency meeting in Paris with senior officials, adding the crew changed its flight path because of "particularly difficult weather conditions."

Two French fighter jets are among aircraft scouring the rugged north of Mali for the plane, which was traveling from Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, in western Africa to Algiers, the Algerian capital. An aid worker in Mali who asked not to be named said his organization had received several calls from residents based in the villages of Tessalit and Tinzawaten in the northeastern region of Kidal after hearing a loud explosion.

Algeria's state news agency APS said authorities lost contact with flight AH 5017 an hour after it took off from Burkina Faso, but other officials gave differing accounts of the times of contact, adding to confusion about the plane's fate.

Swiftair, the private Spanish company that owns the plane, confirmed it had lost contact with the MD-83 operated by Air Algerie, which it said was carrying 110 passengers and six crew members.

A diplomat in the Malian capital Bamako said that the north of the country, which lies on the plane's likely flight path, was struck by a powerful sandstorm overnight.

Whatever the cause, another plane crash is likely to add to nerves in the industry after a Malaysia Airlines plane was downed over Ukraine last week, a TransAsia Airways crashed off Taiwan during a thunderstorm on Wednesday and airlines canceled flights into Tel Aviv due to the conflict in Gaza.

An Air Algerie representative in Burkina Faso, Kara Terki, told a news conference that all the passengers on the plane were in transit, either for Europe, the Middle East or Canada.

He said the passenger list included 50 French, 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.

A spokeswoman for SEPLA, Spain's pilots union, said the six crew were from Spain. She could not give any further details.

REGIONAL SEARCH

Swiftair said on its website the aircraft took off from Burkina Faso at 0117 GMT and was supposed to land in Algiers at 0510 GMT but never reached its destination.

An Algerian aviation official said the last contact Algerian authorities had with the missing Air Algerie aircraft was at 0155 GMT when it was flying over Gao, Mali.

Aviation authorities in Burkina say they handed the flight to the control tower in Niamey, Niger, at 1:38 a.m. (0138 GMT). They said the last contact with the flight was just after 4:30 a.m. (0330 GMT).

Burkina Faso minister Ouedrago said the flight asked the control tower in Niamey to change route at 0138 GMT because of a storm in the Sahara.

However, a source in the control tower in Niamey, who declined to be identified, said it had not been contacted by the plane, which in theory should have flown over Mali.

Burkinabe authorities have set up a crisis unit in Ouagadougou airport to provide information to families.

Issa Saly Maiga, head of Mali's National Civil Aviation Agency, said that a search was under way for the missing flight.

“We do not know if the plane is Malian territory,” he told Reuters. “Aviation authorities are mobilized in all the countries concerned - Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Algeria and even Spain.”

Aviation websites said the missing aircraft, one of four MD-83s owned by Swiftair, was 18-years-old. The aircraft's two engines are made by Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies.

U.S. planemaker McDonnell Douglas, now part of Boeing , stopped producing the MD-80 airliner family in 1999 but it remains in widespread use. According to British consultancy Flightglobal Ascend, there are 482 MD-80 aircraft in operation, many of them in the United States.

“Boeing is aware of the report (on the missing aircraft). We are awaiting additional information,” a spokesman for the planemaker said.

Swiftair has a relatively clean safety record, with five accidents since 1977, two of which caused a total of eight deaths, according to the Washington-based Flight Safety Foundation.

The Associated Press contributed.


First Published July 24, 2014 6:08 AM


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