An Air Algerie jet carrying 116 people crashed Thursday in a rainstorm over restive Mali, and its wreckage was found near the border of neighboring Burkina Faso — the third major international aviation disaster in a week.
The plane, owned by Spanish company Swiftair and leased by Algeria’s flagship carrier, disappeared from radar less than an hour after it took off from Burkina Faso’s capital of Ouagadougou for Algiers.
French fighter jets, U.N. peacekeepers and others hunted for the wreckage of the MD-83 in the remote region, where scattered separatist violence may hamper an eventual investigation into what happened.
It was found about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the border of Burkina Faso near the village of Boulikessi in Mali, a Burkina Faso presidential aide said.
“We sent men, with the agreement of the Mali government, to the site, and they found the wreckage of the plane with the help of the inhabitants of the area,” said Gen. Gilbert Diendere, a close aide to Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore and head of the crisis committee set up to investigate the flight.
“They found human remains and the wreckage of the plane totally burnt and scattered,” he said.
He told The Associated Press that rescuers went to the area after they had heard from a resident that he saw the plane go down 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of Malian town of Gossi. Burkina Faso’s government spokesman said the country will observe 48 hours of mourning.
Malian state television also said the debris of Flight 5017 was found in the village of Boulikessi and was found by a helicopter from Burkina Faso. Algeria’s transport minister also said the wreckage had apparently been found. French officials could not confirm the discovery late Thursday.
“We found the plane by accident” near Boulikessi, said Sidi Ould Brahim, a Tuareg separatist who travelled from Mali to a refugee camp for Malians in Burkina Faso.
“The plane was burned, there were traces of rain on the plane, and bodies were torn apart,” he told AP.
Families from France to Canada and beyond had been waiting anxiously for word about the jetliner and the fate of their loved ones aboard. Nearly half of the passengers were French, many en route home from Africa.
“Everything allows us to believe this plane crashed in Mali,” French President Francois Hollande said after an emergency meeting in Paris. He said the crew changed its flight path because of “particularly difficult weather conditions.”
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, his face drawn and voice somber, told reporters, “If this catastrophe is confirmed, it would be a major tragedy that hits our entire nation, and many others.”
The pilots had sent a final message to ask Niger air control to change its route because of heavy rain, said Burkina Faso Transport Minister Jean Bertin Ouedraogo.
French forces, who have been in Mali since January 2013 to rout al-Qaida-linked extremists who had controlled the north, searched for the plane, alongside the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA.
Algerian Transport Minister Omar Ghoul, whose country’s planes were also searching for wreckage, described it as a “serious and delicate affair.”
The vast deserts and mountains of northern Mali fell under control of ethnic Tuareg separatists and then al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremists after a military coup in 2012.
The French-led intervention scattered the extremists, but the Tuaregs have pushed back against the authority of the Bamako-based government. Meanwhile, the threat from Islamic militants hasn’t disappeared, and France is giving its troops a new and larger anti-terrorist mission across the region.
A senior French official said it seems unlikely that fighters in Mali had the kind of weaponry that could shoot down a jetliner at cruising altitude. While al-Qaida’s North Africa branch is believed to have an SA-7 surface-to-air missile, also known as MANPADS, most airliners would normally fly out of range of these shoulder-fired weapons. They can hit targets flying up to roughly 12,000-15,000 feet.
Swiftair, a private Spanish airline, said the plane was carrying 110 passengers and six crew, and left Burkina Faso for Algiers at 0117 GMT Thursday (9:17 p.m. EDT Wednesday), but had not arrived at the scheduled time of 0510 GMT (1:10 a.m. EDT Thursday). It said the crew included two pilots and four flight attendants.
The passengers included 51 French, 27 Burkina Faso nationals, eight Lebanese, six Algerians, five Canadians, four Germans, two Luxembourg nationals, one Swiss, one Belgian, one Egyptian, one Ukrainian, one Nigerian, one Cameroonian and one Malian, Ouedraogo said. The six crew members were Spanish, according to the Spanish pilots’ union.
Swiftair said the plane was built in 1996, with two Pratt & Whitney JT8D-219 PW engines.
Swiftair took ownership of the plane on Oct. 24, 2012, after it spent nearly 10 months unused in storage, according to Flightglobal’s Ascend Online Fleets, which sells and tracks information about aircraft. It had more than 37,800 hours of flight time and has made more than 32,100 takeoffs and landings.
It was the fifth crash — and the second with fatalities — for Swiftair since its founding in 1986, according to the Flight Safety Foundation.
The MD-83 is part of a series of jets built since the early 1980s by McDonnell Douglas, a U.S. company now owned by Boeing Co. The MD-80s are single-aisle planes that were a workhorse of the airline industry for short- and medium-range flights for nearly two decades.
As jet fuel prices spiked in recent years, airlines have rapidly being replacing the jets with newer, fuel-efficient models such as Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s.
There are 496 other MD-80s being flown, according to Ascend.
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