Weather Suspected in Air Algérie Plane Crash, 116 People Feared Dead

DAKAR, Senegal — The wreckage of an Air Algérie jetliner was found late Thursday in a semidesert area in Mali, and there appeared to be no survivors of the crash, the top military official in neighboring Burkina Faso said Thursday night.

The plane, an MD-83, took off at 1:17 a.m. Thursday from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, on a flight to Algiers with 110 passengers and a crew of six. Air traffic controllers lost contact with the plane less than an hour later. Fierce thunderstorms were pounding the Sahara region where the plane, Flight 5017, would have flown, and the storms probably played a role in bringing the plane down, according to the official, Gen. Gilbert Diendéré, chief of the general staff.

Diendéré said his men found the plane’s wreckage in an isolated area about 60 miles south of the town of Gao in Mali as night was falling on Thursday. “We saw no survivors,” he said in a telephone interview from Ouagadougou. He said the troops had to halt their examination for the night.

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Daylight may provide answers to the questions about the cause that hung over a day of searching for the plane on Thursday. “We think it was the weather — there were lots of storms, lots of lightning,” Diendéré said.

Shepherds near the Malian desert town of Gossi told local officials that they had witnessed the crash from a distance in the early hours of Thursday. “The shepherds saw the plane fall,” Louis Berthaud, the deputy mayor of Gossi, said Thursday night.

Mohammed El Moctar, a Malian living in Burkina Faso, said he had spoken by cellphone with a cousin who is a shepherd in the Gossi area, and that his cousin “saw the plane descending to a low altitude.”

“Then he heard a loud rumbling, very loud, and he saw lots of smoke,” El Moctar said. “He was very scared. He didn’t know what it was.”

The crash comes at a time when the aviation industry is already reeling from the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine last Thursday, the crash of TransAsia Airways Flight 222 in Taiwan on Wednesday and the suspension of flights to and from Tel Aviv this week because of rocket fire from Gaza.

The Burkina government said in a statement late Thursday that searchers had found the wreckage of Flight 5017 around 6:40 p.m., “on Malian territory, about 30 miles from our borders.”

Even so, a French military spokesman, Col. Gilles Jaron, said in Paris late Thursday that he could not confirm that any wreckage had been located. Fifty-one of the passengers on the plane were French citizens, and when it was reported missing Thursday morning, French warplanes based in the region were dispatched to hunt for it. “We are continuing the search,” Jaron said.

President François Hollande canceled a trip to the island of Comoros and the French territories of Reunion and Mayotte and called his Cabinet together in Paris for an emergency meeting Thursday afternoon. “We still don’t know what happened,” Hollande said in the evening after the meeting. “What we know is that the crew signaled at 1:48 a.m. that it was changing direction because of a particularly difficult weather situation.”

France, which once ruled the region as a colonial power, retains extensive political and economic interests and a significant military presence in West Africa. It led an international effort last year to expel Islamist militants from towns in northern Mali that were overrun by al-Qaida’s North African affiliate in 2012. The militants left behind stacks of manuals explaining in detail how to use SA-7a and SA-7b shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, which can shoot down an airliner flying low for takeoff or landing. But those militants are not known to possess heavier weapons that could strike an aircraft at cruising altitude.

Flight 5017’s usual northward route to Algiers would have taken it over desert areas where the militant groups have been active. But French military officials in the region said it was highly unlikely that the Air Algérie flight had been shot down, the way Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was in eastern Ukraine a week ago.

Instead, early guesses about the cause of the crash have focused on the weather.

The Burkina Faso government said that the aircraft’s last contact with ground control came a few minutes after it had passed northward out of the country’s air space. It said the crew contacted air traffic controllers in Niamey, Niger, at 1:47 a.m. local time, and informed them that the plane had encountered storms.

Residents of northern Mali reported a heavy sandstorm overnight. “There was a lot of damage from the wind, especially in the region of Kidal,” said Kata Data Alhousseini Maiga, an official with the U.N. mission in Gao, Mali. “The sand was so thick that you couldn’t see.”

The jetliner belonged to a Spanish company, Swiftair, and was operated by Air Algérie. Apart from the French citizens, the passengers included 28 people from Burkina Faso, eight Lebanese, six Algerians, five Canadians, four Germans, two people from Luxembourg, and one each from Switzerland, Belgium, Egypt, Ukraine, Nigeria, Cameroon and Mali, the Burkina authorities said. The discrepancy in the total number of passengers could not be explained. Lebanese officials gave a higher figure, 10, for their citizens on the plane, and the Spanish pilots’ union said all six crew members were Spanish, news agencies reported.

Swiftair said on Thursday that the jet, bearing the tail number EC-LTV, was built by McDonnell Douglas in 1996. The company merged with Boeing in 1997 and stopped producing MD-80-series planes the next year, but hundreds of the aircraft remain in use around the world.

Air Algérie’s last major accident was in 2003, when Flight 6289, a Boeing 737, crashed shortly after takeoff from Tamanrasset in southern Algeria on its way to Algiers. Mechanical failure was blamed for the crash, which killed 102 people.