French soldiers on Friday secured one of the black boxes from the Air Algerie plane that went down in restive northern Mali on Thursday killing 116 people, French President Francois Hollande said. While armed fighters are active in the region where the plane went down, officials said the most likely cause of the crash is bad weather.
Investigators at the scene of the crash said the airliner broke apart when it hit the ground, suggesting the plane was unlikely to have been the victim of an attack.
The plane's black box was recovered from the wreckage, in the Gossi region near the border with Burkina Faso, and is being taken to the northern city of Gao, where a French contingent is based, Hollande told reporters after a crisis meeting with top ministers.
"There are, alas, no survivors," Hollande said. "I share the pain of families living through this terrible ordeal."
Nearly half of the passengers aboard the flight were French, many headed to Europe after arriving in the Algerian capital from the Burkina Faso capital, Ouagadougou.
The president has said that France will spare no efforts to uncover the cause of the crash — the third major plane disaster around the world within a week.
Last week, a Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down over war-torn eastern Ukraine; the U.S. has blamed the deaths on separatists firing a surface-to-air missile. On Wednesday, a Taiwanese plane crashed during a storm, killing 48 people. International airlines also temporarily canceled flights into Tel Aviv this week, citing security concerns amid instability in Gaza.
President Hollande said "there are hypotheses, notably weather-related, but we don't rule out anything because we want to know what happened.
"What we know is that the debris is concentrated in a limited space, but it is too soon to draw conclusions," he added.
Aviation officials lost contact with flight AH 5017 — an MD-83 aircraft, owned by Spanish company Swiftair and leased by Algeria's flagship carrier — less than an hour after it took off for Algeria on Thursday. The disappearance came after a request by the pilot to change course due to bad weather.
"The aircraft was destroyed at the moment it crashed," French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told RTL radio.
French 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 an accumulation of such factors.
"We exclude — and have done so from the start — any ground strike," Cuvillier told France 2 television.
Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was due to visit the crash site later Friday.
A team from France's Accident Investigation Bureau has been sent to Mali, Hollande said.
A French Reaper drone based in Niger initially spotted the wreckage, French Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier told France-Info radio on Friday. Two helicopter teams also flew over, noting that the wreckage was in a concentrated area. A column of soldiers in some 30 vehicles were dispatched to the site, he 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.
The pilots had sent a final message to ask Niger air control to change its route because of heavy rain, Burkina Faso Transport Minister Jean Bertin Ouedraogo said Thursday.
The vast deserts and mountains of northern Mali fell under control of ethnic Tuareg separatists and then Al-Qaeda-linked armed fighters after a military coup in 2012.
French forces intervened in January 2013 to rout rebels controlling the region. A French soldier was killed earlier this month near the major town of Gao, where French troops remain.
The intervention scattered the rebels, but the Tuaregs have pushed back against the authority of the Bamako-based government. Meanwhile, the threat from Islamic rebels hasn't disappeared, and France is giving its troops a new and larger anti-militant mission across the region.
Al Jazeera and wire services