French authorities have recovered one of the two black-box recorders from the Spanish-owned, Air Algérie-operated airliner that crashed south of the Malian city of Gao, close to the border with Burkina Faso on Thursday.
They also said that the plane was carrying 118 people, not 116, as previously thought – including six Spanish crew members – and that none of them had survived the incident.
France also tentatively ruled out that the incident had been caused by a terrorist attack, saying that the bad weather conditions seemed to be the fundamental factor. The absence of an official explanation had fueled speculation about a bomb or missile attack in an area of guerrilla activity.
The remains of the aircraft were concentrated in one area, which could indicate that it had not exploded in the air
Nevertheless, French president François Hollande said he was not yet dismissing any hypothesis.
Both Hollande and French secretary of state for transport Frédéric Cuvillier pointed out that the remains of the completely disintegrated aircraft were concentrated in one area, which could indicate that the plane had not previously exploded in the air.
According to witnesses there was also a strong smell of kerosene around the crash site, which would suggest that the fuel tanks did not break up in the air before hitting the ground and did not burn as a result of an explosion.
The Foreign Ministry has its African embassies on alert
Shortly after taking off from Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) in the early hours of Thursday morning, Flight AH5017, which was headed to Algiers, disappeared off radar screens and lost contact with Algerian civil aviation authorities.
A total of 51 French nationals were thought to be on the MD-83 plane, which belonged to the Spanish charter company Swiftair but was operated by Air Algérie.
France — which sent military fighter jets to comb the area — Algeria, Niger and Mali all participated in the search operation.
Some experts feel that the MD-83, an aircraft made in 1996, is too old and more fragile than a Boeing 727
“There were no survivors. Someone witnessed the crash and warned us, so we sent a mission there, but we could not examine the site properly because it was already dark,” said Gilbert Diendéré, coordinator of the crisis committee created by the government of Burkina Faso.
The official confirmed, however, that soldiers had found part of the wreckage in a semi-deserted area 90km south of Gao, in the Gossi region. He also blamed bad weather for the crash, as there had been a sandstorm.
Mali state television also confirmed the find, and said that President Ibrahim Bubacar Keita would visit the area on Friday.
The absence of an official explanation has fueled speculation about a bomb or missile attack
Some experts feel that the MD-83, an aircraft made in 1996, is too old and more fragile than a Boeing 727 in the face of turbulence caused by the clash of hot continental air and humid sea air, a naturally occurring phenomenon in that part of the desert.
In Spain, the Public Works Ministry has also set up a crisis committee, while Civil Aviation is in touch with authorities in Burkina Faso, Mali and Algeria. The foreign ministry has its African embassies on alert.
There are still many questions regarding the disappearance and crash of the airliner, which follows close on the heels of another plane crash in Taiwan and a third passenger aircraft that was shot down by a missile over Ukraine.
The plane took off from Ouagadougou at around 1.17am GMT and was scheduled for arrival in Algiers at 5.11am GMT. The last movement detected by radars was a sudden change of course over the Sahara desert in Mali, around 500km from the border with Algeria.
The BBC reports that Burkina Faso Transport Minister Jean Bertin Ouedraogo said the plane sent its last message at around 1.30am GMT, asking air traffic controllers in Niger to change its route because of bad weather.
In 2013, French military troops acted against the Islamist militias of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in Western Africa (MOJWA) in northern Mali, in conjunction with Malian forces.