PARIS - Authorities appear to have ruled out a missile attack in the crash of an Air Algerie flight that went down in Mali on Thursday, but many questions remain.
The plane was carrying 118 passengers French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters Friday - 112 passengers and 6 crew members. Fifty-four French nationals are among the victims. Fabius said all victims' families have been notified.
In a brief statement at the Elysee palace in Paris on Friday, French President Francois Hollande said French soldiers had reached the crash site of the Air Algerie plane in a northern Mali desert not far from the Burkina Faso border. Fabius said the team had recovered one of the plane's two black boxes.
The French leader said the aircraft's wreckage was strewn over a fairly small area. Officials say a powerful sandstorm struck the region around the time of the crash.
Fabius described the crash location as a sandy field that was difficult to reach due to conditions made worse by the current rainy season. He said a small group of 30 French soldiers had been dispatched to the area immediately after the crash site was located, and that the group would be bolstered by an additional 170 troops from France, Mali and The Netherlands.
While weather may have caused the crash, President Hollande said no hypothesis can be ruled out. The plane had been flying through bad weather, Fabius told reporters, confirming that the pilot had requested a change of course, but experts say that is rarely the only reason for a crash.
Missile strike, bomb ruled out
Terrorism has not been ruled out, since militants are known to operate in the area. But officials say the plane did not likely explode in the air, since the debris is scattered over a relatively small area. Earlier, France's Transportation Minister said experts had ruled out a missile strike, like the one that downed the Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine.
Experts say a bomb may also be unlikely, because it seems the plane may have crashed on impact. Technical failure or pilot error are other options, but officials say the SwiftAir company that owned the plane had a good reputation.
The flight, which originated in Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou, crashed about 150 kilometers south of the Malian city of Gao. The remote and deserted area was the target of a French military offensive last year to oust Islamist militants controlling it.
In a radio interview, French journalist and Africa expert Antoine Glaser said the area was less dangerous today than parts further north, but no part of the region is fully secure.
Waiting for answers
In Africa and in France, relatives of the passengers are waiting for answers.
“I truly regret to inform you that this plane has crashed and has been found in smithereens," Burkina Faso’s Prime Minister, Luc Adolphe Tiao, told families of passengers on board the flight during a statement at the airport in Ouagadougou. "So there doesn’t seem to be any possibility to say that there are any survivors. That because the aircraft disintegrated into several pieces, the bodies of the passengers will be difficult to recover.”
Dramane Ouedraogo, who lost seven of his family members in the crash, said he is still in shock.
“I live in Ouagadougou, but my family was visiting me from France. I was with them at the airport yesterday, just until the moment of takeoff…Now I have lost my younger brother and his wife, my sister and her four children," he lamented.
According to SwiftAir, a total of 24 Burkina Faso nationals were on the plane, along with the French passengers, six Spanish crew members and eight from Lebanon, six from Algeria, and smaller numbers from at least 12 other countries.
“We are giving all the assistance available and possible to the families of this crisis, and will assist them and rest by their side and work to better support them, doing all that is possible to help them through this tragedy," Burkina Faso’s Minister of Communications, Alain Traoré, said, adding that the government continues to work to identify the cause of the accident and is standing by the families who lost loved ones.
Crisis centers have been set up at the airports in Ouagadougou and Algiers to support family members.
Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaoré announced two days of national mourning for the 24 Burkinabe who lost their lives. Compaore, along with Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, are scheduled to visit the crash site Friday afternoon.
Jennifer Lazuta contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal, Zoumana Wonongo reported from Ouagadougou, and Amadou Maiga reported from Bamako.