Up to 116 people feared dead in air tragedy
France last night became the second European nation to go into mourning over an airline tragedy in a week after Algeria confirmed that a plane carrying 116 people – almost half of them French – crashed in the North African desert.
The Air Algerie flight disappeared from radar screens over Mali 50 minutes after take-off from Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso bound for Algiers. The pilot had contacted Niger's control tower in Niamey to change course because of a storm in the Sahara.
France said 51 of its citizens were among those feared dead on Flight AH 5017. Many were said to be expatriates on their way back to France for the holidays. Francois Hollande, the French president, said: "Everything suggests this plane has crashed. Everything must be done to find this plane."
Confirming that the plane had changed course due to "weather concerns", Laurent Fabius, the foreign minister, warned: "If this catastrophe is confirmed, it is a major tragedy to strike this nation."
Last night there was speculation that terrorism could have been involved, although that has not been confirmed.
The disappearance of the Air Algerie plane came as Holland mourned the loss of 194 nationals among 298 people who died last week aboard a Malaysia Airlines flight that came down over Ukraine.
A provisional passenger list of the Air Algerie flight included 27 Burkina Faso nationals, eight Lebanese, six Algerians, five Canadians, four Germans, two Luxembourg nationals, one Swiss, one Belgian, one Egyptian, one Ukrainian, one Nigerian, a Cameroonian and a Malian.
The six crew members are Spanish, according to the Spanish pilots' union.
Last night, after a day of conflicting reports, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, the president of Mali, announced that wreckage had been found between the northern towns of Aguelhoc and Kidal.
Radio France International said locals had heard "loud explosions" near Kidal. Efforts to reach the wreckage could prove perilous as it lies in the heart of the Tuareg uprising and Islamist activity that has brought chaos to northern Mali.
The town of Kidal is a key stronghold of the Tuaregs in Mali and the centre of a recent upsurge in fighting between government forces and the separatist MNLA. Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb is also active in the area, as are other Islamist groups. Yesterday, two French Mirage 2000 fighter jets based in west Africa were scrambled to try to locate the airliner along its probable route.
French troops are among those continuing to fight Islamist rebels in the area after a major French-led offensive to drive them out last year.
A senior French official said the al-Qa'ida-backed Islamists were unlikely to have access to missiles with sufficient range to shoot down a plane flying at cruising altitude. However, the US Federal Aviation Administration explicitly warns civil aircraft to avoid flying over Mali because of insurgent activity.
Some experts doubted that weather could have caused a crash, pointing out that even a direct lightning strike very rarely causes any damage. Jean Serrat, a former airline pilot, told i-Tele, a French television news channel, that changing course to "avoid a mass of clouds happens regularly in this type of flight and poses not a particular problem".
Mr Serrat suggested that the causes were more likely "either a terror strike on board or, like MH17, a missile strike". (© Daily Telegraph, London)