Poor weather was the most likely cause of the crash of an Air Algerie flight over the West African state of Mali with 116 people on board, French officials said on Friday.
Investigators at the scene of the crash had concluded the airliner broke apart when it hit the ground, the officials said, suggesting that it was unlikely the plane had been attacked.
"The aircraft was destroyed at the moment it crashed," Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told RTL radio. The plane carrying 51 French nationalswas en route from Burkina Faso to Algiers when it crashed.
"We think the aircraft crashed for reasons linked to the weather conditions. No theory can be excluded at this point ... but that is indeed the most likely theory," he added.
"Terrorist groups are in the zone ... We know these groups are hostile to Western interests," Cazeneuve said.
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.
"We exclude — and have done so from the start — any ground strike," Cuvillier told France 2 television.
He said that a column of 100 soldiers from the French force stationed in the region were on their way to secure the crash site near the northern town of Gossi. France deployed troops to Mail last year to halt an al Qaeda-backed insurgency.
Two French fighter jets based in the region had been dispatched to locate the missing plane on Thursday.
The Algerian state news agency APS said air navigation services lost track of the MD-83 passenger jet, charted by Spain’s Swiftair, at 9:55 p.m. Wednesday, 50 minutes after takeoff. Flight AH5017 had been missing for hours before the news was made public.
Burkino Faso Transport Minister Jean Bertin Ouedrago said the aircraft asked to change route at 9:38 p.m. because of a storm in the area.
Swiftair, the private Spanish airline, confirmed that 116 people were aboard.
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.
The flight path of Flight AH5017 from Ouagadougou, the capital of the west African nation of Burkina Faso, to Algiers was not immediately clear. Ougadougou is in a nearly straight line south of Algiers that passes over Mali, where unrest continues in the north.
Aviation authorities in Burkina Faso say they handed the flight to the control tower in Niamey, Niger, at 9:38 p.m. They said last contact with the flight was just after 11:30 p.m.
Burkinabé authorities have set up a crisis unit in Ouagadougou airport to provide information to families of people on the flight. A diplomat in the Malian capital, Bamako, said the north of the country was struck by a powerful sandstorm overnight.
News of the crash is likely to add to the jitters in the airline 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 because of the conflict in Gaza.
A senior French official, however, said it was unlikely that fighters in Mali had weaponry that could shoot down a plane. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak for attribution, said the fighters have shoulder-fired weapons that could not hit an aircraft at cruising altitude.
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