An Air Algerie flight that went missing over Mali has most likely crashed, according to officials. A search has been launched for the plane, which went missing on a flight from Burkina Faso across the Sahara to Algiers.
On Thursday, the French Foreign Ministry announced that officials believed flight AH5017 - which was carrying 116 people - had crashed after going missing over the Sahara Desert.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that French fighter jets had combed large parts of northern Mali looking for traces of the airplane, which was operated by the Spanish airline Swiftair.
"Despite intensive searches, no trace of the plane has been found as we speak," Fabius said. "The plane has probably crashed," he added. "The searches are focusing at this stage on a vast strip of Malian territory around the region of Gao."
Fabius said that, should the crash be confirmed, it would represent "a major tragedy" for France.
More than 50 French nationals were said to be on board the plane, along with some 24 citizens of Burkina Faso and six flight crew members from Spain. The remaining passengers were from more than a dozen other countries - including eight Lebanese, six Algerians, five Canadians, four Germans and two Luxembourg nationals.
One victim each was understood to have come from Belgium, Cameroon, Egypt, Niger, Romania, Switzerland and Ukraine.
Flight over restive zone
The McDonnell 83 aircraft disappeared at 0155 UTC while flying over the region around Gao, one of three towns seized back last year by French-led forces from Islamist militants who had taken control of Mali's north. The plane sent its last message about half an hour earlier, asking Niger's air control to change its route because of heavy rains in the area.
In a statement carried by APS, Air Algerie announced that "in keeping with procedures" it had "launched its emergency plan."
France's civil aviation body announced that crisis cells had been set up at the airports in Paris and Marseille.
In February of this year, an Algerian C-130 military aircraft crashed into the mountains in the northeast, killing more than 70 people.
The country's worst air disaster to date occurred in 2003, when an Air Algerie passenger plane crashed shortly after takeoff near the southern city of Tamanrasset after one of its engines cut out. All but one of the 103 people on board were killed.
rc/mkg (AFP, AP, dpa, reuters)