BEIRUT: An Air Algerie plane crashed Thursday enroute from Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso to Algiers with more than 100 passengers onboard, an Algerian aviation official said. The plane had disappeared from radar Thursday morning, with at least 20 of its passengers Lebanese, a source at Lebanon's consulate in Burkina Faso initially told The Daily Star, with officials later confirming the number.
On Thursday evening, Mali's president announced that the wreckage of the Air Algerie flight has been spotted between the northern towns of Aguelhoc and Kidal.
The Lebanese Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a statement saying that the Lebanese embassy in Abidjan informed it that 20 Lebanese were onboard the ill-fated plane.
Foreign Minister Jebran Bassil told The Daily Star Thursday evening that a delegation from his ministry along with officials from General Security and the Higher Relief Committee will fly to Mali to inpect the crash site.
An official source in Lebanon told AFP that among the Lebanese onboard of the AH5017 flight were three couples with 10 children.
"I can confirm that it has crashed," an Algerian official told Reuters, declining to give details of where the plane was or what caused the accident.
Three of the Lebanese passengers were identified as Fadi Rustom and Joseph Hajj from Aintoura in Metn and Omar Ballan from the Kesrouan town of Ghazir.
A Lebanese diplomatic source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said families from south Lebanon were also onboard the plane, including Randa Bassma Daher and her children, Mounji Hasan and his family and Mohammad Akhdar.
According to the source Fadi Rustom and Joseph al-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 added, at her home in the south Lebanon village of Srifa.
Randa Daher was on board of the AH 5017 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.
Burkino Faso Transport Minister Jean Bertin Ouedrago said the plane was asked to change route at 0138 GMT because of a storm in the area.
Almost half of the passengers were French citizens, an airline official said.
Two French fighter jets based in the region have been dispatched to try to locate the airliner along its probable route, a French army spokesman said. Niger security sources said planes were flying over the border region with Mali to search for the flight.
Algeria's state news agency APS said authorities lost contact with flight AH 5017 an hour after it took off from Burkina Faso, but other officials gave differing accounts of the times of contact, adding to confusion about the plane's fate.
Swiftair, the private Spanish company that owns the plane, confirmed it had lost contact with the MD-83 operated by Air Algerie, which it said was carrying 110 passengers and six crew.
A diplomat in the Malian capital Bamako said that the north of the country - which lies on the plane's likely flight path - was struck by a powerful sandstorm overnight.
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 cancelled flights into Tel Aviv due to the conflict in Gaza.
An Air Algerie representative in Burkina Faso, Kara Terki, told a news conference that all the passengers on the plane were in transit, either for Europe, the Middle East or Canada.
A spokeswoman for SEPLA, Spain's pilots union, said the six crew were from Spain. She could not give any further details.
Swiftair said on its website the aircraft took off from Burkina Faso at 0117 GMT and was supposed to land in Algiers at 0510 GMT but never reached its destination.
UK daily The Guardian quoted the Spanish Sports daily Marca as saying that that the SwiftAir aircraft was used as as the official aircraft for Real Madrid FC between 2007 and 2009.
An Algerian aviation official said the last contact Algerian authorities had with the missing Air Algerie aircraft was at 0155 GMT when it was flying over Gao, Mali.
Aviation authorities in Burkina say they handed the flight to the control tower in Niamey, Niger, at 1:38 a.m. (0138 GMT). They said the last contact with the flight was just after 4:30 a.m. (0330 GMT).
Burkina Faso minister Ouedrago said the flight asked the control tower in Niamey to change route at 0138 GMT because of a storm in the Sahara.
However, a source in the control tower in Niamey, who declined to be identified, said it had not been contacted by the plane, which in theory should have flown over Mali.
Burkinabe authorities have set up a crisis unit in Ouagadougou airport to provide information to families.
"We do not know if the plane is Malian territory," he told Reuters. "Aviation authorities are mobilized in all the countries concerned - Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Algeria and even Spain."
Aviation websites said the missing aircraft, one of four MD-83s owned by Swiftair, was 18-years-old. The aircraft's two engines are made by Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies.
U.S. planemaker McDonnell Douglas, now part of Boeing , stopped producing the MD-80 airliner family in 1999 but it remains in widespread use. According to British consultancy Flightglobal Ascend, there are 482 MD-80 aircraft in operation, many of them in the United States.
"Boeing is aware of the report (on the missing aircraft). We are awaiting additional information," a spokesman for the planemaker said.
Swiftair has a relatively clean safety record, with five accidents since 1977, two of which caused a total of eight deaths, according to the Washington-based Flight Safety Foundation.
Air Algerie's last major accident was in 2003 when one of its planes crashed shortly after take-off 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.