An Air Algerie flight carrying 116 people including five Canadians that was flying from Burkina Faso to Algeria’s capital disappeared from radar early Thursday over northern Mali and “probably crashed,” according to the plane’s owner and government officials in France and Burkina Faso.
Air navigation services lost track of the MD-83 about 50 minutes after takeoff from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, at 9:55 p.m. ET Wednesday, the official Algerian news agency APS said
“Despite an intensive search, at the moment I speak, no trace of the aircraft has been found,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters in Paris. “The plane has probably crashed.”
Two French fighter jets are among aircraft scouring the rugged area north of Mali for the plane.
Earlier, an Algerian official told Reuters that “I can confirm that it has crashed,” but gave no further details.
‘Loss of contact’
However, Houaoui Zoheir, spokesman for the Algerian crisis centre said that “as we haven’t found the wreckage, we can’t talk of a crash,” he said. “We talk of loss of contact.”
He said Algerian aircraft were flying over the region around Gao to try to locate wreckage.
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The flight was being operated by Spanish airline Swiftair, the company said in a statement. The Spanish pilots’ union said the plane belonged to Swiftair.
The plane sent its last message around 9:30 p.m. ET asking Niger air control to change its route because of heavy rains in the area, Burkina Faso Transport Minister Jean Bertin Ouedraogo said.
Lynne Yelich, Canada’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, tweeted that the government is aware of the reports of Canadians on board and that they are seeking more information, but that consular officials are ready to provide assistance.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of all those on board Air Algerie Flight AAH 5017,” said one of the tweets.
French Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier said the Air Algerie flight vanished over northern Mali. He spoke Thursday from a crisis centre set up in the French Foreign Ministry. Cuvillier didn’t specify exactly where the plane disappeared over Mali, or whether it was in an area controlled by rebels.
But Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal said on Algerian state television that 10 minutes before disappearing, it was in contact with air traffic controllers in Gao, a city essentially under the control of the Malian government, though it has seen lingering separatist violence.
The six crew members are Spanish, according to the Spanish pilots’ union, and the passengers aboard the jet include:
27 Burkina Faso nationals,
Two Luxemburg nationals.
One Swiss, one Belgium, one Egyptian, one Ukrainian, one Nigerian, one Cameroonian and one Malian.
Plane missing for hours
The plane had been missing for hours before the news was made public. It wasn’t immediately clear why airline or government officials didn’t make it public earlier.
The flight path of the plane from Ouagadougou to Algiers wasn’t immediately clear. Ouagadougou is in a nearly straight line south of Algiers, passing over Mali where unrest continues in the north.
Northern Mali fell under control of ethnic Tuareg separatists and then al-Qaeda-linked Islamic extremists following a military coup in 2012. A French-led intervention last year scattered the extremists, but the Tuaregs have pushed back against the authority of the Bamako-based government.
A senior French official said it seems unlikely that fighters in Mali had the kind of weaponry that could shoot down a plane.
Swiftair, a private Spanish airline, said the plane was carrying 110 passengers and six crew, and left Burkina Faso for Algiers at 9:17 p.m. ET Wednesday, but had not arrived at the scheduled time of 1:10 a.m. ET Thursday.
Swiftair said it has not been possible to make contact with the plane and was trying to ascertain what had happened. It said the crew included two pilots and four cabin staff.
“In keeping with procedures, Air Algerie has launched its emergency plan,” APS quoted the airline as saying.
The MD-83 is part of a series of jets built since the early 1980s by McDonnell Douglas, a U.S. plane maker now owned by Boeing Co. The MD-80s were the workhorse of domestic air travel in the U.S. and are used for a flights of a few hours over land elsewhere.
The report that five Canadians were on the Air Algerie flight comes a week after a Canadian – Andrei Anghel, 24, from Ajax, Ont. – was among the nearly 300 who perished when a Malaysian passenger plane was shot down over Eastern Ukraine in an area controlled by pro-Russian rebels.
Gathering at airport
Said Chitour, an Algiers-based freelance reporter, said some of the passengers’ loved ones have gathered at the airport there to await any news.
The search for the plane will be difficult, Chitour said, as it was set to cross a large swath of the desert.
“It’s a very tough area where there’s nothing … it’s the middle of nowhere, really,” Chitour told CBC News Network.