An Air Algerie flight with at least 116 people on board which dropped off the radar in the early hours of Thursday has apparently crashed in Mali, the flight operator said.
Air Algerie said via Twitter that the plane has apparently crashed in the Tilemsi area, about 70 kilometers (45 miles) from the southeastern city of Gao.
Flight 5017 lost radar contact 50 minutes after takeoff from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, early Thursday. It was supposed to arrive at Algiers’ Houari Boumediene Airport about four hours later.
The airline also tweeted that among those on board were 50 people from France, 24 from Burkina Faso, eight Lebanese, six Algerians, five Canadians, four Germans, two from Luxembourg, one from Mali, one Cameroonian, one Belgian, one Ukrainian, one Romanian and one Swiss.
Ouagadougou Airport said in a post on its Facebook page that Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro, was among those on board. The Cuban Foreign Ministry is looking into the reports but was not aware she was on that plane, and CNN has not confirmed that she was on the flight.
An earlier Facebook post said that the plane might be in the area of Kidal in northern Mali, where French troops are stationed, backed up by the air force. The town of Kidal was occupied some months ago by rebels. Mali lies between Burkina Faso and Algeria.
The French forces have already started reconnaissance flights to search for the plane, the airport’s post said.
According to the state-run Algeria Press Service news agency, the plane, an MD-83, was carrying 119 people in total, including seven crew members, a slightly different number from the 116 given by the airport and French officials.
French Secretary of Transport Frederic Cuvillier also told reporters the plane disappeared over northern Mali, where Islamist militants are fighting the Malian government and French forces.
He said “a large number of French passengers” were believed to be on board the plane, according to CNN’s French affiliate BFMTV.
France sets up hotline
France is actively seeking more information about the location of the missing flight.
“We are entirely mobilized in Paris as well as in Algiers and Ouagadougou where our embassies are in constant contact with local authorities and the airline,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement, adding that a hotline number has been established.
The MD-83 is part of the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 family of twin-engine, single-aisle jets.
The plane belongs to a private Spanish company, Swiftair, but it appears to have been operated by Air Algerie.
“We have lost contact with the plane,” Swiftair said.
“At this moment, emergency services and our staff are working on finding out more on this situation.”
Air Algerie said via Twitter, “Unfortunately, for the moment we have no more information than you do. We will give you the latest news live.”
The tweet appears since to have been deleted.
Storms on flight path
According to CNN meteorologist Mari Ramos, at the time of the flight, there were thunderstorms in the area of the flight path.
This is a turbulent area, so it is likely that if the plane was diverted because of weather, it was to avoid a bumpy flight. Thunderstorms are a very common occurrence at this time of year in this area.
Air Algerie is Algeria’s national airline, with flights to 28 countries.
The deadliest incident in the airline’s history occurred in March 2003 when a domestic flight crashed after takeoff, killing 102 people on board. One person survived.
In February, a Hercules C-130 military aircraft crashed in the mountains of eastern Algeria, killing 77 of the 78 people on board.
The MD-83’s disappearance comes exactly a week after a Malaysia Airlines plane was brought down in Ukraine with 298 people on board.