Air Algerie: 5 Canadians Aboard Flight That Disappeared

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PARIS - French soldiers have secured a black box from the wreckage of an Air Algerie plane that went down in a desolate region of restive northern Mali, the French president said Friday.

Terrorism hasn't been ruled out as a cause of the crash, although officials say the most likely reason for the catastrophe that killed all onboard is bad weather.

At least 116 people — including five Canadians — were killed in Thursday's disaster, nearly half of whom were French. President Francois Hollande put the number of victims at 118, a discrepancy that couldn't be immediately clarified.

One of two black boxes was recovered from the wreckage in the Gossi region of Mali near the border with Burkina Faso, and was taken to the northern city of Gao, where a French contingent is based, Hollande told reporters after an emergency meeting with government ministers.

"There are, alas, no survivors," Hollande said. "I share the pain of families living through this terrible ordeal."

A team of French air accident investigators was being sent to Mali, he said.

Air Algerie and private Spanish airline Swiftair, which was operating Flight 5017, said Thursday there were 116 people onboard.

French television showed images of the crash site scene taken by a soldier from Burkina Faso. The brief footage showed a desolate area with scattered debris that was unrecognizable. There were bits of twisted metal but no identifiable parts such as the fuselage or tail, or victims' bodies. Scrubby vegetation could be seen scattered in the background.

Burkina soldiers were reportedly the first to reach the site, apparently Thursday evening, and the images were viewed at the Burkina Faso crisis centre.

Gen. Gilbert Diendere, a close aide to Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore and head of the crisis committee, said of the footage: "People expected to see an airplane sitting somewhere, and unfortunately it was debris scattered over 500 metres (about 550 yards), which made the search of the area very, very difficult."

A French Reaper drone based in Niger initially spotted the wreckage, French Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier told France-Info radio on Friday. Two helicopter teams also flew over the site, noting the wreckage was in a concentrated area. A column of soldiers in about 30 vehicles was sent to the site, he said.

"We sent men, with the agreement of the Mali government, to the site, and they found the wreckage of the plane with the help of the inhabitants of the area," said Diendere.

Many of the passengers were scheduled to head on to Europe after the plane was due to arrive in the Algerian capital from Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou.

The partner of Isabelle Prevost of Sherbrooke, Que., said late Thursday that he has been told the 35-year-old woman was one of the passengers on the flight.

Danny Frappier said he received a call Thursday morning telling him his partner was aboard the flight, which at that point was only reported as missing.

He said Prevost was on vacation in Africa and it was the family that was putting her up that first contacted him. Frappier said he tried to get information from official sources but that it came in dribs and drabs.

"The only confirmation I have is that she was on the flight," he told The Canadian Press. "We'll try to have as good a night as possible and we'll see who confirms what."

"We're hoping there's part of her body that can be repatriated, some kind of proof that she was really there, that she's really dead, I don't know."

The couple has three children, aged five, seven and nine.

Radio-Canada earlier quoted Prevost's partner as saying their children were meant to travel with her but that it was decided they should stay with him.

The network also quoted Burkina Faso native Mamadou Zoungrana, who works as a technologist at the Papineau Hospital in Gatineau, Que., as saying that his wife and their two sons, aged six and 13, were on the flight. CBC reported they are not Canadian citizens.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement saying he was saddened at news of the crash.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of the passengers and crew who lost their lives in this tragedy," he said in the statement, adding that it was confirmed Canadians are among the victims.

Tweets from the account of Lynne Yelich, Canada's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, said consular officials are ready to provide assistance.

Nearly half the 110 passengers aboard the plane were French, and France is deeply shaken by the drama.

The president has said that France will spare no efforts to uncover why the plane went down — the third major plane disaster around the world within a week. A Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down last week over war-torn eastern Ukraine. The United States has blamed it on separatists firing a surface-to-air missile. On Wednesday, a Taiwanese plane crashed during a storm, killing 48 people.

The vast deserts and mountains of northern Mali fell under control of ethnic Tuareg separatists and then al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremists after a military coup in 2012.

French forces intervened in January 2013 to rout Islamist extremists controlling the region. A French soldier was killed earlier this month near the town of Gao, where French troops remain.

The intervention 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 region.

"There are hypotheses, notably weather-related, but we don't rule out anything because we want to know what happened," Hollande said about the Air Algerie flight. "What we know is that the debris is concentrated in a limited space, but it is too soon to draw conclusions."

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on RTL radio: "Terrorist groups are in the zone. ... We know these groups are hostile to western interests."

The MD-83 aircraft, owned by Swiftair and leased by Algeria's flagship carrier, disappeared from radar screens less than an hour after it took off early Thursday from Ouagadougou for Algiers. The plane had requested permission to change course because of bad weather.

The pilots had sent a final message to ask Niger air control to change its route because of heavy rain, Burkina Faso Transport Minister Jean Bertin Ouedraogo said Thursday.

The MD-83 had passed its annual air navigation certificate renewal inspection in January without any problems, Spain's Public Works Ministry said Friday. The European Aviation Safety Agency also carried out a "ramp inspection" of the plane in June without incident.

Ramp inspections "are limited to on-the-spot assessments and cannot substitute for proper regulatory oversight," EASA website says. "Ramp inspections serve as pointers, but they cannot guarantee the airworthiness of a particular aircraft."


AP journalist Ciaran Giles in Madrid, Spain, contributed to this report.


— With files from The Canadian Press

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VIDEO: Crash Site

The Associated Press released footage of the crash site of an Air Algerie plane.

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Frédéric Cuvillier, the French junior minister for transport, said France is ruling out a ground strike as the cause of the crash of the Air Algérie flight over Mali.

French President François Hollande also spoke to the press Friday, updating the number of casualties to 118, more than had been originally reported.

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A French military unit has been dispatched to secure the crash site of the Air Algerie jet that crashed in northern Mali on July 24, The Associated Press reported.

The troops aim to secure the evidence and human remains found about 30 miles from the border of Burkina Faso before extremists take over the area.

"Terrorist groups are in the zone ... We know these groups are hostile to Western interests," French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told RTL radio.

FMI: Click here.

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French investigators believe bad weather may have played a role in the crash of Air Algerie Flight AH5017 on July 24, ITV reported.

"We think the aircraft crashed for reasons linked to the weather conditions, although no theory can be excluded at this point," French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told RTL radio.

For more, click here.

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The French government claimed that the wreckage of the Air Algerie plane that went missing was spotted in Mali's Gossi region, echoing similar reports made.

Malian state TV had reported similarly earlier, followed by a Burkina Faso official who said that the wreckage had been found near the border Mali-Burkina Faso border, the Associated Press reports.

-- Andrew Hart

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Reuters reports that Malian State TV has said that the wreckage of the Air Algerie flight was found close to Gossi in Mali.

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24/07/2014 23:11 BST
More From The AP:

OUAGADOUGO, Burkina Faso (AP) — A Burkina Faso official says the wreckage of the Air Algerie plane that went missing has been found in Mali.

Gen. Gilbert Diendere says the wreckage was located about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the border of Burkina Faso near the village of Boulikessi in Mali.

Diendere is a close aide to President Blaise Compaore and head of the crisis committee set up to coordinate research for the plane that vanished Thursday in a rainstorm over northern Mali.

He says searchers found human remains and burned and scattered plane wreckage.

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24/07/2014 23:05 BST
AP: Wreckage Found
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24/07/2014 22:55 BST

Swiftair, the company that owns the plane that went missing over Ukraine, says the wreckage has not been located yet.

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From The Associated Press:

Conflicting reports emerged about wreckage spotted in two different sites, several hundred kilometers (miles) away from each other in the sparse, vast region where the Sahara Desert meets the rest of Africa.

Malian Communiciations Minister Mahamadou Camara told The Associated Press on Thursday night that the plane hadn't yet been found and "the search is underway." French military and diplomatic officials also said no wreckage had been found.

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Burkina Faso's army told Agence France Presse that it had located the missing Air Algerie plane in Mali, near the border.

"We have found the Algerian plane. The wreck has been located ... 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of the Burkina Faso border" General Gilbert Diendiere from the Burkina Faso army told the news service.

Diendiere's claims have not yet been verified

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Agence France Press says Burkina Faso's army has announced the wreck of the missing Algeria Airlines flight was found in Mali.

There have been conflicting reports throughout the day about the location of the wreckage. Burkina Faso's airport announced earlier on Thursday French troops had spotted the plane in a remote area. France later denied those claims.

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Reuters reports that Mali's president is stating wreckage of Air Algerie Flight AH5017 has been spotted in the country's north. There have been conflicting reports throughout the day as to the location of the plane.

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Throughout the day, conflicting reports emerged over what had happened to Algeria Airlines flight 5017 on Thursday, and whether the wreckage of the plane had been found. Here's a recap of the contradicting reports today:

- Reuters and CBC reported early on that an Algerian aviation official had confirmed the airplane had crashed. "I can confirm that it has crashed," the official told Reuters, but declined to give more details.

- Speaking to NBC News, an airport official in Burkina Faso also said the plane had crashed and added that the wreckage had been found.

- The airport of Ouagadougou claimed later on its website it had confirmation the airplane had crashed and that French forces had located the wreckage in a remote area in northern Mali.

- French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters in Paris that the plane "probably" crashed, but that the wreckage had not been found. "Despite intensive search efforts no trace of the aircraft has yet been found," French Foreign Minster Laurent Fabius told journalists in Paris, Reuters reports. "The plane probably crashed," he added.

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France's foreign ministry said on Thursday that an Air Algerie plane that went missing over northern Mali has probably crashed. French military jets are searching the area for the wreckage.

"Despite intensive search efforts no trace of the aircraft has yet been found," French Foreign Minster Laurent Fabius told journalists in Paris, Reuters reports. "The plane probably crashed," he added.

An airport official in Burkina Fasa NBC news earlier that the airplane had crashed after altering its route because of a storm.

The flight with 116 passengers aboard was on its way from Burkina Faso to the Algerian capital when it disappeared from the radar.

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24/07/2014 16:55 BST
Mariela Castro: 'Here I Am'

According to TeleSur TV, Mariela Castro reacted on Thursday to (false) rumors she was aboard the crashed Air Algerie plane. "Maybe the media that published the news needed some publicity, but here I am," Castro reportedly said.

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There is growing confusion whether Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban leader Raul Castro, was aboard the Air Algerie plane. NBC's reporter in Havana, Mary Murray, reportedly personally saw the woman this morning.

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The plane would have crashed in the Tilemsi region, 70 kms from Gao.
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Ouagadougou airport says Mariela Castro, the niece of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, was aboard the missing plane.

Among the passengers of flight AH5017, there were 2 European officials with French nationality who were stationed in Ouagadougo and Mariela Castro, the niece of Fidel Castro, former head of state of Cuba.
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Ouagadougou airport released a map it says shows the probably crash site of the missing Algerian plane.


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The airport in Ouagadougou where the plane departed from posted a statement with the passengers' nationalities on its Facebook page. (Translated from French below)

The aircraft was in the vicinity of Kidal (Mali) where French troops with air support stationed in the city (occupied a few months ago by rebels), have already begun reconnaissance flights.

The nationalities reported by the passengers is as follows (close to a third, however, hold dual nationality)

20 Lebanese passengers
28 Burkinabe passengers
51 French passengers
5 Canadian passengers
4 German passengers
1 Luxembourgeois passenger
1 Swiss passenger
6 Spanish crew members

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Officials tell CBS News Air Algerie plane has crashed.

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24/07/2014 14:47 BST
Map Showing Planned Route
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24/07/2014 13:57 BST
Official: Plane Has Crashed

Reuters reports that an Algerian aviation official has said the missing plane has crashed.

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From Reuters:

PARIS, July 24 (Reuters) - Two French fighter jets based in West Africa have been deployed to try and locate a missing Air Algerie flight, a French army spokesman said on Thursday.

"Two Mirage 2000 jets based in Africa were dispatched to try to locate the Air Algerie plane that disappeared on Thursday," French army spokesman Gilles Jaron said. "They will search an area from its last known destination along its probable route."

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Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal said that the plane disappeared around 3a.m Thursday. The last contact with the plane took place 10 minutes before its disappearance in the Gao region.

"There were 119 passengers on board the plane, including the Spanish crew. Searches are in progress with the relevant authorities. The victims are of multiple nationalities," he said without giving more detail. A representative of Air Algerie, Zohir Houari, confirmed that the disappearance took place above Gao, an area where militant group The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) remains active.

--Said Djaafer

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