ALGIERS: An Air Algerie plane missing since early Thursday over Mali with 116 passengers and crew, including 50 French nationals, on board probably crashed, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.
“Despite intensive searches, no trace of the plane has been found as we speak,” he said in Paris.
“The plane has probably crashed. The searches are focusing at this stage on a vast strip of Malian territory around the region of Gao,” in the north of the west African nation, he said.
Flight AH5017, which originated in Ouagadougou and was bound for Algiers, went missing in the early morning amid reports of heavy storms, company sources and officials said.
“The plane disappeared at Gao, 500 kilometres (300 miles) from the Algerian border. Several nationalities are among the victims,” Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal was earlier cited as saying by Algerian radio.
The airline said it had 50 French, 24 from Burkino Faso, eight Lebanese, six Algerians, six Spanish, five Canadians, four Germans and two Luxembourg nationals on board.
Fabius said there were 51 French on board.
Aviation sources told Agence France-Presse the airliner was a McDonnell Douglas MD-83 leased from Spanish company Swiftair.
Its six-member crew were all Spanish, said Spain’s airline pilots’ union Sepla, and Swiftair confirmed the aircraft had gone missing less than an hour after takeoff.
Air Algerie said the passenger manifest also included one person each from Belgium, Cameroon, Egypt, Mali, Nigeria, Romania, Switzerland and Ukraine as well as “three nationalities yet to be determined”.
“Search operations have begun and are currently continuing in the area concerned,” the carrier said at 2:00 pm (1300 GMT).
In France, two emergency cells had been set up, at the country’s civil aviation authority DGAC and at the foreign ministry, DGAC said, in addition to another two at Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airport in Paris and at Marseille airport.
DGAC said that many passengers had been due to catch onward connecting flights to Paris and Marseille.
Contact between air traffic control and the aircraft was lost over restive northern Mali as it flew towards the border with Algeria, a source within the airline told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In Mali, the prime minister’s office also said contact was lost around Gao.
“The plane was not far from the Algerian frontier when the crew was asked to make a detour because of poor visibility and to prevent the risk of collision with another aircraft on the Algiers-Bamako route,” an airline source said.
“Contact was lost after the change of course.”
A controller in Mali, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the area was rocked by “strong storms” overnight.
Northern Mali was seized by jihadist groups for several months in 2012 and the region has remained unstable despite the Islamists being driven out in a French-led offensive.
Despite international military intervention still under way, the situation there remains unstable.
On July 17, the Bamako government and armed groups from northern Mali began talks in Algiers aimed at securing an elusive peace deal.
Two French Mirage 2000 warplanes based in the Chadian capital N’Djamena were taking part in the search for the plane, the French military said.
Air Algerie, in a statement carried by national news agency APS, said it had initiated an “emergency plan” in the search for AH5017, which flies the four-hour passenger route four times a week.
“Air traffic control had their last contact with AH5017 on the Ouagadougou-Algiers route today, July 24, at 0155 GMT, 50 minutes after takeoff,” an airline statement said.
The search for the missing flight comes less than six months after one of Algeria’s worst air disasters.
In February this year, a C-130 military aircraft carrying 78 people crashed in poor weather in the mountainous northeast, killing more than 70 people.
The plane had been flying from the desert garrison town of Tamanrasset in Algeria’s deep south to Constantine, 320 kilometres (200 miles) east of Algiers.
Tamanrasset was the site of the country’s worst-ever civilian air disaster, in March 2003.
In that accident, all but one of the 103 people on board were killed when an Air Algerie Boeing 737-200 crashed on takeoff after one of its engines caught fire.
The sole survivor, a young Algerian soldier, was critically injured.