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No survivors in Mali crash, 54 French killed

James Pearn · 25 Jul 2014, 15:00

Published: 25 Jul 2014 15:00 GMT+02:00

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  • French President François Hollande confirms there were no survivors
  • The French government says 54 of its national were killed, not 51 as originally reported
  • Elysée Palace says there were 118 people aboard the plane, not 116
  • France says the plane was not shot down, however Holland says no avenues have been excluded
  • Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the most probable cause of the plane crash was the weather

17:30: Here's the latest story from AFP on the Air Algérie crash:

France announced Friday there were no survivors on board the Air Algerie flight that crashed in Mali as it emerged that several families were wiped out in the tragedy.

Such was the apparent violence of the crash -- increasingly blamed on bad weather -- that debris shown in the first available footage of the impact site were barely recognisable as parts of an aircraft.

There were conflicting tolls of whether there were 118 or 116 people aboard the flight.

"Sadly, there are no survivors," President Francois Hollande said on television, a day after the plane, carrying 54 French nationals, went down shortly after take-off from Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso.

The McDonnell Douglas 83 jet, operated by Spanish charter firm Swiftair on behalf of Air Algerie, was also carrying passengers and crew from Burkina Faso, Lebanon, Algeria, Spain, Canada, Germany and Luxembourg.

It was unclear exactly how many people were on board, as Swiftair put the number at 116 while the French presidency said 118 passengers and crew were on the jet.

On Friday, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius revised the death toll of French nationals up from 51 to 54.

The first footage of the crash site in Mali's hard-to-reach Gossi region, filmed by soldiers from nearby Burkina Faso, showed a stark, sandy-looking terrain littered with debris, the ground blackened in some areas.

The jet was on its way to Algiers when it crashed amid reports of heavy storms in the area, shortly after the pilots radioed in that they were diverting course due to difficult weather conditions.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said weather conditions appeared to be the most likely cause of the accident -- the worst air tragedy for French nationals since the crash of the Air France A330 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in June 2009.

But Hollande insisted that no potential cause for the accident was being left out.

Swiftair has a good safety record and the head of France's civil aviation authority said Thursday that the MD-83 had passed through France this week and been given the all-clear.

Airline disaster week

The plane crash is the third in the space of just eight days, capping a disastrous week for the aviation industry.

On July 17, a Malaysia Airlines plane crashed in eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. And a Taiwanese aircraft crashed in torrential rain in Taiwan on Wednesday, killing 48.

France has been hugely active in search and retrieval efforts for the Air Algerie plane, dispatching military forces and crash experts to the site after one of its drones found the wreckage.

The country already has a strong military presence in the area after it launched an offensive in Mali last year to stop Islamist extremists and Tuareg rebels from marching onto Bamako.

Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters that around 180 French and Malian forces had arrived on the crash site, as had 40 Dutch soldiers from the MINUSMA UN stabilization force in Mali.

"Their mission is to make the zone secure and to allow information to be gathered, which will be essential for the investigation," he said.

The black box flight recorder of the plane has already been recovered, Hollande said earlier.

Entire families in plane
Whatever the cause of the crash, the human face of the tragedy was becoming ever-more poignant as the hours went by, with humanitarians, expatriates, tourists and entire families among the victims.
In one particularly tragic case, ten members of the same French family were on board the plane, the mayors of the towns where some of them lived and relatives told AFP.
The small town of Menet in central France, meanwhile, was left devastated when residents found out a family-of-four -- a couple, their ten-year-old daughter Chloe and their 14-year-old son Elno -- that lived there died.
Denise Labbe of the local town hall said Chloe had been hugely excited about the trip, but had also confided to her teacher that she was scared of taking the plane, which she was doing for the first time.
Relatives of the victims will meet Hollande and Fabius in Paris on Saturday.  Air Algerie flies the four-hour passenger route from Ouagadougou to Algiers four times a week, and the Spanish crew had already flown it five times with the same plane, Algeria's transport minister said.
This year has already seen Algeria mourn the loss of another plane when a C-130 military aircraft carrying 78 people crashed in February in the country's mountainous northeast, killing more than 70 on board.
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced a three-day period of national mourning starting from Friday.

16:38: The Spanish crew aboard flight AH5017 had already made the Algiers-Ouagadougou trip five times together before the crash, said Algerian Transport Minister Amar Ghoul.

15:57: French Minister of State for Foreign Trade Fleur Pellerin said there were not apparently any suspicious passengers aboard flight AH5170. She said an initial check has not raised any red flags, but to rule out any suspicion and deeper inquiry will need the run its course.  

15:24: France has revised upward the number of its nationals killed in the crash of AH5017 to 54. Officials initially reported 51 French citizens were killed. This final tally includes people with dual citizenship.

15:20: Pope Francis has expressed his "deepest condolences and passed the families his deepest sympathy during this trying time," in a message to the archbishop of Algiers.  

14:47: Hollande will meet with the families of the victims on Saturday, all of whom have been notified of their loved ones' deaths. So far some 5,000 calls have poured into the hotline the government set up to communicate with victims' families. 

14:33: Europe 1 is reporting that Air France has forbidden its aircraft from flying over Mali in the wake of the Air Algérie flight's crash in the northern part of the country. 

14:20: The grainy footage shows bits of the fuselage scattered over a large, sandy-looking terrain of dry shrubs, which is blackened in some areas. Such was the violence of the apparent impact, that the debris seen on the video was barely recognisable as parts of an aircraft.

14:00: France is sending several dozen 'gendarme' police officers to the crash site to help with the investigation.

13:00: Hollande has spoken with his Malian counterpart, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, and the leaders have agreed to work closely to establish the truth about what brought the plane down and ensure victims' bodies are repatriated in the best conditions, according to Elysée Palace. 

12:45: The Elyée Palace has upped the death toll flight AH5017, noting there were 118 people aboard the plane and not 116 as previously reported. The government still says there were 51 French people on the jet. 

12:32: Ten members of the Reynaud family from the town of Lorette in central France were killed in the crash, French daily Le Dauphiné reported. A man and his ex-wife, their two children, their two daughters-in-law and four grand children were aboard the flight. 

12:00: Hollande has called a crisis meeting at the Elysée Palace on Saturday at 10am to discuss the crash of flight AH5017 which is to include his prime, interior, defense, and foreign ministers.

11:30: Despite earlier comment from a minister, Hollande is not ruling out that the plane was shot down, saying "We have not excluded any hypothesis." He said weather-related problems is one of the avenues being probed by investigators. 

11:25: French troops are at the crash site and have recovered one of the plane's in-flight data recorder, the so-called 'black box,' and are rushing it off for analysis, Hollande says.

11:04: President François Hollande has just told reporters French troops at the scene of crash have confirmed there were no survivors from flight AH5017.

10:18: The hometowns of some of victims have emerged, with a family of four from the village of Menet and a five others from the town of Quatre-vents. Both towns are in central France.

10:00: France's top leadership was meeting this morning to share information and create an action plan after the Air Algérie flight crash.

9:53: Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the most likely cause of Thursday's crash was bad weather conditions:  "We think that this plane crashed for reasons pertaining to meteorological conditions," he said on RTL radio

09:40: Cuvillier says "We have excluded from the start the possibility of a strike from the ground," he said on French television, rejecting speculation that the jet with 116 people on board, including 51 French nationals, could have been shot down by rebels in Mali's restive north.

09:30: France's Transport Minister Frédéric Cuvillier says the plane had been inspected a week prior during a stop in Marseilles and was in good shape.

"We have found the Algerian plane. The wreck has been located ... 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of the Burkina Faso border" in the Malian region Gossi, said General Gilbert Diendiere of the Burkina Faso army.

Story continues below…

"At the moment we have no further information on (the fate of) the passengers but our teams are hard at work," he said.

Diendiere gave no indication as to what may have caused the plane to crash.

The French president's office said Friday the jet was clearly identified even though it had "disintegrated".

A "French military unit has been sent to (the area) to secure the site and gather evidence", it added in a statement.

President Francois Hollande expressed his solidarity with the families and friends of the victims.

Flight AH5017, which took off from Ouagadougou bound for Algiers with 51 French nationals aboard according to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, went missing amid reports of heavy storms, company sources and officials said.

The airline said there were also 24 Burkinabe, eight Lebanese, six Algerians, six Spanish, five Canadians, four Germans and two Luxembourg nationals on board.

Canadian media said a Canadian family of four were among the victims.

The mother, father and two children lived in a suburb of Montreal and were returning home with a friend -- a resident of nearby Sherbrooke, Quebec -- from another couple's 50th wedding anniversary celebrations in Burkina Faso, said French-language broadcaster LCN.

An Air Algerie official in Montreal was not able to confirm the reports.

The flight had been presumed lost even before Hollande appeared on TV to announce: "Everything leads us to believe that the plane has crashed."

He said the plane's Spanish crew had signalled they were altering course "due to particularly difficult weather conditions".

Fabius had said earlier that "contact was lost with the McDonnell Douglas 83 at 1:47 (local time), a little after the pilots said they were diverting from the route due to meteorological reasons".

Algerian radio quoted Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal as saying the plane dropped off the radar at Gao, 500 kilometres (about 300 miles) from the Algerian border.

Poor visibility

Mali, Algeria, Niger and France coordinated their search efforts under the umbrella of the French-led military intervention in Mali, Operation Serval.
"Even though the aircraft was above Mali it was in airspace managed by the control centre in Niamey in Niger," an air traffic control official told AFP.
Aviation sources told AFP the MD-83 was leased from Spanish company Swiftair.
Its six-member crew were all Spanish, said Spain's airline pilots' union Sepla, and Swiftair confirmed the aircraft went missing less than an hour after take-off.
"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."
The plane had apparently been given the "all clear" following an inspection in France only this week, French civil aviation authority DGAC said.
In France, two crisis units were set up, one at the DGAC and another at the foreign ministry, in addition to two further centres at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris and at Marseille airport.

James Pearn (james.pearn@thelocal.com)

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