BEIRUT: At least 19 Lebanese, among them 10 children, heading home for Eid al-Fitr holiday perished on board of an Air Algérie plane carrying 116 passengers that crashed Thursday in a desolate area in West Africa.
Flight AH5017, which originated in Ouagadougou and was bound for Algiers, went missing amid reports of heavy storms, company sources and officials said. The plane’s wreck was found Thursday evening in Mali near the Burkina Faso border, a coordinator for the crisis unit in Ouagadougou said.
Swiftair, the private Spanish company that owns the plane, confirmed it had lost contact with the MD-83 operated by Air Algérie, which it said was carrying 110 passengers and six crew. The plane’s crew had signaled they were altering course due to difficult weather conditions.
“We have found the Algerian plane. The wreckage has been located ... 50 kilometers north of the Burkina Faso border in the Malian region of Gossi,” said General Gilbert Diendiere from the Burkina Faso army. Mali’s president also announced that the wreckage of the Air Algérie flight has been spotted between the northern towns of Aguelhoc and Kidal.
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil told The Daily Star that flight manifests obtained by Lebanese authorities indicated that 19 Lebanese were onboard the plane. “I can confirm that at least 19 passengers were Lebanese,” Bassil said. “We suspect that two other passengers are also Lebanese and we’re trying to confirm their identities.”
A source at Lebanon’s Consulate in Burkina Faso initially told The Daily Star that at least 20 Lebanese were on board of the plane. In addition to the Lebanese nationals, the airline said it had 50 French, 24 Burkinabe, six Algerians, six Spanish, five Canadians, four Germans and two Luxembourg nationals on board.
French President Francois Hollande vowed to deploy all of France’s military means in Mali, where it has hundreds of troops, to track down the wreckage of the missing plane.
Lebanese authorities, who are dispatching a joint diplomatic and military delegation to take part in search and rescue efforts, are expecting difficulties retrieving the bodies of the Lebanese passengers.
Bassil said that a delegation from his ministry along with officials from General Security and the Higher Relief Committee will fly to Mali to inspect the crash site.
“We are closely coordinating with French authorities and we are glad they are overseeing the whole operation,” Bassil disclosed, adding that the fact that the plane fell in an isolated zone would complicate rescue and retrieval efforts.
“We are expecting difficult days ahead,” Bassil noted.
Three Lebanese families hailing from south Lebanon were onboard the plane, a diplomatic source said. Randa Basma Daher and her three kids, Monji Hasan and his wife and four kids, and Bilal Dheini and his wife and four kids all died in the crash, the source added.
Other Lebanese on flight AH5017 included Joseph al-Hajj, Fadi Rustom, Omar Ballan and Mohammad Akhdar, according to the flight manifest.
According to the source Rustom and Hajj were long-term residents of Burkina Faso who own businesses there.
“They were coming here for the Eid [al-Fitr] break,” an emotional Hajjeh Amineh Daher, the sister-in-law of Randa Daher, told The Daily Star. “We haven’t seen them in the past four years,” she said at her home in the south Lebanon village of Srifa.
Randa Daher was onboard the plane with her kids Ali, 17, Salah, 15 and Shaymaa, 5.
The consulate source said there were no more than a thousand Lebanese living in the Burkina Faso capital, Ouagadougou, adding that Algiers was a transit point for Lebanese flying home to Beirut.
Algeria’s state news agency APS said authorities lost contact with flight AH 5017 an hour after it took off from Burkina Faso.
“The plane was not far from the Algerian frontier when the crew was asked to make a detour because of poor visibility and to prevent the risk of collision with another aircraft on the Algiers-Bamako route,” an airline source said. “Contact was lost after the change of course.”
U.K. daily the Guardian quoted the Spanish Sports daily Marca as saying that that the Swiftair aircraft was used as the official aircraft for Real Madrid FC between 2007 and 2009.
The plane had apparently been given the “all clear” following an inspection in France only this week, the French civil aviation authority DGAC said.
Whatever the cause, another plane crash is likely to add to nerves in the industry after a Malaysia Airlines plane was downed over Ukraine last week, a TransAsia Airways crashed off Taiwan during a thunderstorm Wednesday and airlines canceled flights into Tel Aviv due to the conflict in Gaza.
Algerian Transport Minister Omar Ghoul, whose country’s planes were also searching for wreckage, described it as a “serious and delicate affair.”
The vast deserts and mountains of northern Mali fell under control of ethnic Tuareg separatists and then Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic extremists after a military coup in 2012.
The French-led intervention in Mali scattered the extremists, but the Tuaregs have pushed back against the authority of the Bamako-based government. Meanwhile, the threat from Islamic militants hasn’t disappeared, and France is giving its troops a new and larger anti-terrorist mission across the West Africa region.
A senior French official said it seems unlikely that fighters in Mali had the kind of weaponry that could shoot down a jetliner at cruising altitude.
While Al-Qaeda’s North Africa branch is believed to have an SA-7 surface-to-air missile, also known as MANPADS, most airliners would normally fly out of range of these shoulder-fired weapons. They can hit targets flying up to roughly 12,000-15,000 feet.
Air Algérie’s last major accident was in 2003 when one of its planes crashed shortly after takeoff from the southern city of Tamanrasset, killing 102 people.
In February this year, 77 people died when an Algerian military transport plane crashed into a mountain in eastern Algeria. - With AP, AFP