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Lebanese delegation in Mali, plane crash probe makes little progress

A representative of the Lebanese victims' relatives looks at debris at the crash site of the Air Algerie Flight AH 5017 in Mali's Gossi region, west of Gao, on July 26, 2014. AFP PHOTO/ SIA KAMBOU

BEIRUT: A Lebanese delegation arrived in Mali Sunday to follow up on the investigation into last week’s ill-fated Air Algerie flight, which wiped out entire families, and to repatriate the remains of the Lebanese nationals who were aboard.

The delegation includes Director-General for Emigrant Affairs Haitham Joumaa, Secretary-General of the Higher Relief Committee Maj. Gen. Mohammad Khair and DNA expert Dr. Fouad Ayoub, as well as two officers from General Security and the Lebanese Army.

As they arrived, French investigators were already combing the site of the crash in the remote northern region Mali.

France has taken the lead on the investigation and recovery operation after losing 54 citizens on the flight, which was carrying 118 passengers and crew from Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso to Algiers. Nineteen passengers were Lebanese, some of them dual citizens of other countries.

French authorities have voiced strong suspicion that the plane was downed by bad weather, while cautioning that the investigation is ongoing. The plane’s black boxes, which have both been recovered, will be sent to Paris for analysis.

French President Francois Hollande said Saturday he wanted the remains of all passengers to be transferred to France before repatriation to their respective home countries.

Malian authorities will oversee the transportation process in collaboration with a French delegation, while a special team of French experts will oversee DNA identification.

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said that recovery of the victims’ bodies would take several days. Air Algerie is providing transportation for each country’s delegation to inspect the crash site, according to a statement from the ministry.

Bassil also contacted several foreign officials, including French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, to convey condolences for the loss of French citizens. Fabius vowed full French assistance to the Lebanese delegation to facilitate the repatriation of remains.

Bassil also contacted Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra, and the two discussed the circumstances of the incident as well as technical issues that led to the crash. Lamamra reportedly assured Bassil that Air Algerie would assume full responsibility for the consequences of this tragedy.

Bassil telephoned the families and relatives of the victims, conveying condolences and wishing them patience and fortitude throughout this difficult period.

According to the statement, the Lebanese delegation will visit Burkina Faso to offer condolences and sympathy to the relatives and families of the victims living in the West African country.

Officials who had already reached Mali’s remote, barren Gossi area described a scene of devastation littered with twisted and burnt fragments of the plane, which disappeared from radar early Thursday, following reports of storms in the area.

Hollande said flags would fly at half-mast from government buildings for three days from Monday to mourn the victims.

“A memorial will be put up so that no one forgets that 118 people perished in this area,” he told reporters.

But the identification of bodies could be an arduous task given the violent impact of the crash.

“It is difficult to retrieve anything, even victims’ bodies, because we have only seen body parts on the ground,” said General Gilbert Diendiere, chief of the military staff of Burkina Faso’s presidency.

A member of a delegation sent to the crash site by President Blaise Compaore, Diendiere added that “debris was scattered over an area of 500 meters, which is due to the fact that the plane hit the ground and then probably rebounded.”

Compaore met Saturday with relatives of some crash victims in Ouagadougou and announced that Burkina Faso had opened an official inquiry into the cause of the disaster.

The Burkinade prosecutor “will work in close cooperation with his counterparts from Mali and France,” he said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 28, 2014, on page 2.

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Summary

A Lebanese delegation arrived in Mali Sunday to follow up on the investigation into last week's ill-fated Air Algerie flight, which wiped out entire families, and to repatriate the remains of the Lebanese nationals who were aboard.

Malian authorities will oversee the transportation process in collaboration with a French delegation, while a special team of French experts will oversee DNA identification.

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said that recovery of the victims' bodies would take several days.

Fabius vowed full French assistance to the Lebanese delegation to facilitate the repatriation of remains.

According to the statement, the Lebanese delegation will visit Burkina Faso to offer condolences and sympathy to the relatives and families of the victims living in the West African country.


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