Wreckage of Air Algerie passenger plane 'found in desert'

THE wreckage of an Air Algerie passenger plane which disappeared off the radar over Mali, West Africa on Thursday, has been found in the country's desert.

Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said the flight AH5017 had been spotted between the northern towns of of Aguelhoc and Kidal, according to Reuters.

"I have just been informed that the wreckage has been found between Aguelhoc and Kidal," Keita said during a meeting of political, religious and civil society leaders in Bamako.

He did not give any more details.

At least 50 French nationals are thought to be among the passengers travelling on AH5017, which lost contact with aviation officials about 50 minutes after take-off from Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso in west Africa.

It was bound for Algiers in Algeria.

The last contact Algerian authorities had with the aircraft was at 01.55am GMT when it was flying over Gao in Mali, an Algerian official said.

The pilot had contacted Niger's control tower and asked to change route at 01.38am because of a storm in the area.

A diplomat in the Malian capital of Bamako said that the north of the country was struck by a powerful sandstorm overnight.

Earlier, an Algerian aviation official confirmed that flight AH5017 had gone missing and crashed while carrying a total of 116 people on board.

Meanwhile, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the Air Algerie flight was still missing, but had "probably crashed".

"Despite intensive search efforts no trace of the aircraft has yet been found," Fabius told journalists in Paris. "The plane probably crashed."

In response to the incident, French President Francois Hollande cancelled a planned visit to overseas territories, and said all military means on the ground would be used to locate the aircraft.

He added he had sent his minister Fleur Pellerin to the region, and confirmed he will hold an emergency cabinet meeting this afternoon.

"The search will take as long as needed," Hollande told reporters. "Everything must be done to find this plane. We cannot identify the causes of what happened," he said.

Two French Mirage fighter jets based in Africa have been deployed and are attempting to locate the missing plane.

The French civil aviation body has confirmed investigations into the missing plane are being led from Paris and Marseille. It has set up crisis centres at airports in both cities.

Niger security sources said the country had also sent planes over the border region with Mali to search for the flight.

The official Algerian news agency APS has published a list of passengers on board the plane, including 51 French, 27 Burkina Faso nationals, eight Lebanese, six Algerians, five Canadians, four Germans, two Luxemburg nationals, one Swiss, one Belgian, one Egyptian, one Ukrainian, one Nigerian, one Cameroonian and one Malian.

The six crew members are believed to be Spanish, according to reports.

However, AFP has reported that at least 20 passengers are Lebanese.

It is not yet known how many casualties there are. Officials have not issued any further details.

The plane is operated by Air Algerie and chartered from Spanish airline Swiftair, who said 110 passengers and six members of crew are on board the MD83 aircraft. It can carry up to 167 people.

The company said in a statement that the passenger jet took off from Burkina Faso at 01.17am and was supposed to land in Algiers at 05.10am, but never reached its destination.

 It said the six crew members include two pilots and four flight attendants.

The AFP news agency quoted an unnamed Air Algerie company source as saying that the plane was close to the Algerian frontier when it was asked to make a detour because of poor visibility and to prevent a possible collision with another plane on the Algiers-Bamako route.

Contact was lost after this change of course, according to the source.

Flight AH 5017 flies the Ouagadougou-Algiers route four times per week

Mali has been the site of unrest in recent years after it fell under control of ethnic Tuareg separatists and then al Qaida-linked Islamic extremists following a military coup in 2012.

However, a senior French official said it is unlikely that fighters in Mali had the kind of weaponry that could shoot down a plane.

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