PARIS – Aviation experts, criminal investigators and soldiers began converging Friday on an isolated patch of restive Mali to search for clues that might explain why an Air Algerie jetliner fell from the sky in a storm and apparently disintegrated on impact.
French authorities said the catastrophe was probably the result of extreme bad weather, but they refused to exclude other possibilities, such as terrorism, without a full investigation. All 118 people aboard the plane were killed.
The loss of Flight 5017 wiped out whole families. Nearly half of the dead were French. The passenger list also included other Europeans, Canadians and Africans. The six crew members were Spanish.
French authorities planned to meet today with victims’ families.
The MD-83 was flying from Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, to Algiers, Algeria, when it disappeared early Thursday just 50 minutes after takeoff – the third crash of a passenger plane in the last week.
More than 200 French, Malian and Dutch troops from the United Nations force in Mali secured the site ahead of the arrival this weekend of aviation and criminal investigators.
France has opened a manslaughter investigation because of the 54 French victims.
One of the plane’s two black boxes was found Friday and sent to Gao, the northern Mali city where a contingent of French troops is based.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said victims’ remains would be sent to Gao for identification before being returned home.
Difficult access to the area and instability could hinder the investigation.
Gao is in the heart of a still-restive desert and mountain area in northern Mali that fell under the control of Tuareg separatists, then al-Qaida linked Islamist extremists after a 2012 military coup.
French forces intervened in the west African country in January 2013 to rout Islamist extremists controlling the region. A French soldier was killed earlier this month in the Gao region.
The debris field to the south is in a concentrated area in the Gossi region near the border with Burkina Faso. The area is “in a zone of savannah and sand with very difficult access, especially in this rainy season,” Fabius said.
Video of the wreckage site taken by a soldier from Burkina Faso, the nation first on the scene, showed unrecognizable debris scattered over a desolate area dotted with scrubby vegetation. There were bits of twisted metal but no identifiable parts such as the fuselage or tail, or victims’ bodies.
Investigators from Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria and Spain were joining the inquiry, the French foreign minister said.
It’s too early to know “with absolute certitude” what caused the disaster, Fabius said, but he noted major storms in the region.
The pilot of the jet had advised controllers in Niger that he needed to change routes because of a storm, Burkina Faso Transport Minister Jean Bertin Ouedraogo said Thursday. Contact with the plane was then lost.