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Lebanese Army Divers, Foreign Ships Continue Search for Downed Jet


The search for bodies and wreckage of an Ethiopian passenger jet that crashed Monday near Beiruit is continuing in rough seas, with the help of U.S., British and French rescue teams. Lebanese officials are pinning the cause of the crash on pilot error, although the plane's black box has yet to be recovered.

An elderly lady, dressed in black and wearing a veil, sobbed uncontrollably as she mourned the loss of a loved one apparently killed in the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines passenger jet that crashed Monday off the coast of Lebanon.

Other grim-faced relatives waited outside the morgue of Beirut's Rafiq al-Hariri Hospital to hear if the bodies of loved ones, lost in the crash, had yet been found. As rough seas calmed, following several stormy days, the search by Lebanese Army divers picked up. Frogmen on zodiacs combed the waters, as helicopters hovered overhead.

Military spokesman General Salah Suleiman indicated only a small number of bodies have been found.

He says a number of corpses have been found, but most of the bodies of passengers are thought to be still strapped in their seats in the passenger cabin of the plane, which still has not been located. He noted that a U.S. Navy vessel from the Sixth Fleet is participating in the search operation, along with several United Nations vessels. The plane's black box, he stresses, has also not been found.

A Lebanese TV network reported that bodies were being brought into the hospital in Beirut in Red Cross ambulances. A doctor who works at the hospital emphasized that alot of the bodies were burned in the crash making identification difficult.

Atef Majdalani, who chairs the Lebanese parliament's health committee, explained it is impossible to hand over the bodies to families until the identification process is complete.

He says a DNA analysis must be performed on the corpses and this process takes a minimum of 72 hours to complete. He explains that bodies were returned to loved ones too early after a crash in Africa several years ago and relatives took the wrong bodies.

Video footage taken by security cameras showed a bright flash, in what appears to be an explosion, shortly after the plane took off Monday, before dawn. Both Lebanon's president and its defense minister declared Monday they were "ruling out an act of sabotage."

But a former Lebanese pilot, who asked not to be identified, was not so sure. "Either the crash was due to pilot error, as the government is saying," he said, "or we are paying the price of some political dispute between Ethiopia and Somalia."

Lebanon's Transportation Minister Ghazi Aridi tried to dampen speculation, arguing that no one will know what happened until the fuselage of the plane is found, and he said that normally takes from 24 to 48 hours.

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