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Investigators face harsh conditions at Air Algerie crash

Relatives of Lebanese passengers killed in Air Algerie flight 5017 board a helicopter as they leave for the crash site. AFP PHOTO/ SIA KAMBOU

BEIRUT: The Lebanese delegation at the crash site of the ill-fated Air Algerie plane said they were working to secure the remains of the 19 Lebanese passengers, despite the difficult conditions.

Wreckage of plane, which crashed in Mali last week killing all 118 passengers on board, is strewn across a vast area of remote brush land. Scenes of the crash site on local TV stations show debris scattered across the desert region, where July temperatures can exceed 40 degrees.

“The conditions are very bad,” said Dr. Fouad Ayoub, a DNA expert and member of the Lebanese delegation in Mali.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil announced that the bodies of the Lebanese who perished in the crash would be sent to France for DNA testing.

“We have no other choice,” Bassil told a local TV station. “All the countries have agreed to keep efforts centralized and we must take advantage of France’s resources, knowing that ours are meager.”

Bassil refused to give a date for the return of the bodies to Lebanon. The deceased Lebanese hail mainly from south Lebanon and were returning to spend the Eid holidays with their families.

Bassil is due to meet a delegation of the families of the deceased in Beirut Wednesday, where he will brief them about the latest developments in the case.

The Lebanese delegation has asked France to allow Dr. Ayoub to participate in the sampling and identifying of the remains.

The investigation is progressing, French officials said earlier this week, despite the “extremely difficult conditions” on the ground.

“The remains are pulverized, the heat is overwhelming with rain to boot, and with extreme difficulties in communicating and in transport,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters.

A French official told AFP earlier this week that none of the 118 bodies at the site had been recovered intact. “We realized right away that we would have to go straight to DNA analysis,” said Colonel Patrick Touron, deputy head of the French gendarmerie’s Criminal Research Institute. “We saw that we had no intact bodies ... just very badly broken bodies which weren’t identifiable using the classic forensic methods: dental records and fingerprints.”

Ayoub confirmed the state of the remains. “The entire plane was torn apart, and so were the bodies,” he told an Al-Jadeed reporter.

The searing Saharan temperatures have made the work particularly difficult, Touron said. “The molecular biology techniques require meticulous sample preservation. Time here is against us. It is very hot and the samples become degraded very quickly.”

A total of 200 French forces were due to have arrived on the crash site, as well as Malian soldiers and Dutch forces from the MINUSMA U.N. stabilization force in Mali.

More than 20 French experts from the country’s Bureau of Investigations and Analyses (BEA), which probes air accidents, as well as specialist police forces, were on site in Mali’s barren Gossi area where the plane came down, Fabius said.

Experts from Mali, Algeria and Spain were also helping to determine why the plane – which was operated by Spanish charter firm Swiftair on behalf of Air Algerie – came down with such force that it completely disintegrated.

While investigators have not yet determined why the plane went down, new evidence has led some officials to suggest that bad weather was to blame for the crash.

The plane, which was carrying 19 Lebanese passengers, plummeted to the ground from an altitude of 10,000 meters in just a few minutes after flying into a storm, a senior official involved in the investigation was quoted as saying Wednesday.

Pilots of the plane, which left Burkina Faso en route for Algiers in the early hours of Thursday morning, asked for permission to alter their route due to poor weather.

“What we know for sure is that the weather was bad that night, that the plane crew had asked to change route then to turn back before all contact was lost,” Fabius told reporters in his latest briefing about last week’s disaster.

General Gilbert Diendere, head of Burkina Faso’s crisis cell, said radar data showed the plane seemed to try to fly round the bad weather, before reverting to its initial course, which took it into the eye of the storm.

“Perhaps the pilot thought that he had completely avoided it and wanted to return to the original route,” Diendere said, according to the website of French radio RFI. “The accident took place while the plane performed this maneuver.”

Diendere said the last contact with the plane at its altitude of 10,000 meters was at 01:47 GMT and the crash was reported by witnesses to have taken place at 01:50.

Investigators from the United States were also due to join them, Fabius added.

The two black boxes from the plane have been found and transferred to France, where they are being examined by experts. The results are expected in the coming weeks.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 31, 2014, on page 4.

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Summary

The Lebanese delegation at the crash site of the ill-fated Air Algerie plane said they were working to secure the remains of the 19 Lebanese passengers, despite the difficult conditions.

Wreckage of plane, which crashed in Mali last week killing all 118 passengers on board, is strewn across a vast area of remote brush land.

A total of 200 French forces were due to have arrived on the crash site, as well as Malian soldiers and Dutch forces from the MINUSMA U.N. stabilization force in Mali.

More than 20 French experts from the country's Bureau of Investigations and Analyses (BEA), which probes air accidents, as well as specialist police forces, were on site in Mali's barren Gossi area where the plane came down, Fabius said.

The plane, which was carrying 19 Lebanese passengers, plummeted to the ground from an altitude of 10,000 meters in just a few minutes after flying into a storm, a senior official involved in the investigation was quoted as saying Wednesday.

The two black boxes from the plane have been found and transferred to France, where they are being examined by experts.


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