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116 perish in plane crash

Update July 24

An Air Algerie jetliner carrying 116 people — including five Canadians — crashed Thursday in a rainstorm over restive Mali, and its wreckage was found near the border of neighbouring Burkina Faso. It was the third major international aviation disaster in a week.

The plane, owned by Spanish company Swiftair and leased by Algeria's flagship carrier, disappeared from radar screens less than an hour after takeoff, en route from Burkina Faso's capital of Ouagadougou to Algiers.

French fighter jets, U.N. peacekeepers and others hunted for signs of wreckage of the MD-83 plane in the remote region, where scattered separatist violence may hamper an eventual investigation into what happened.

The wreckage was found about 50 kilometres (31 miles) from the border of Burkina Faso near the village of Boulikessi in Mali, a Burkina Faso presidential aide said.

"We sent men with the agreement of the Mali government to the site and they found the wreckage of the plane with the help of the inhabitants of the area," said Gen. Gilbert Diendere, a close aide to Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore and head of the crisis committee set up to investigate the flight.

"They found human remains and the wreckage of the plane totally burnt and scattered," he said.

He told The Associated Press that rescuers went to the area after they had heard from a resident that he saw the plane go down 80 kilometres (50 miles) southwest of Malian town of Gossi. Burkina Faso's government spokesman said the country will observe 48 hours of mourning.

Malian state television also said the wreckage was found in the village of Boulikessi and was found by a helicopter from Burkina Faso. Algeria's transport minister also said the plane's remains had apparently been found. French officials could not confirm the discovery late Thursday night.

"We found the plane by accident" near Boulikessi, said Sidi Ould Brahim, a Tuareg separatist who travelled Thursday from Mali to a refugee camp for Malians in Burkina Faso. "The plane was burned, there were traces of rain on the plane, and bodies were torn apart," he told The Associated Press.

Families from France to Canada and beyond had been waiting anxiously for signs of Flight 5017 and their loved ones aboard. Nearly half of the passengers were French, many en route home from Africa.

"Everything allows us to believe this plane crashed in Mali," French President Francois Hollande said Thursday night after an emergency meeting in Paris. He said the crew changed its flight path because of "particularly difficult weather conditions."

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, his face drawn and voice sombre, told reporters, "If this catastrophe is confirmed, it would be a major tragedy that hits our entire nation, and many others."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement saying he was saddened at news of the crash.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of the passengers and crew who lost their lives in this tragedy," he said in the statement, adding that it was confirmed Canadians are among the victims.

Tweets from the account of Lynne Yelich, Canada's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, said consular officials are ready to provide assistance.

Radio-Canada reported Thursday that the family of Isabelle Prevost of Sherbrooke, Que., confirmed the 35-year-old woman was one of the passengers on the flight.

Danny Frappier said he received a call Thursday morning telling him his partner was aboard the flight, which at that point was only reported as missing.

He said Prevost was on vacation in Africa and it was the family that was putting her up that first contacted him. Frappier said he tried to get information from official sources but that it came in dribs and drabs.

‘‘The only confirmation I have is that she was on the flight,‘‘ he told The Canadian Press late Thursday.

‘‘We‘ll try to have as good a night as possible and we‘ll see who confirms what.‘‘

‘‘We're hoping there's part of her body that can be repatriated, some kind of proof that she was really there, that she's really dead, I don't know.‘‘

The couple has three children, aged 5, 7 and 9.

Radio-Canada earlier quoted Prevost's partner as saying their children were meant to travel with her but that it was decided they should stay with him.

The network also quoted Burkina Faso native Mamadou Zoungrana, who works as a technologist at the Papineau Hospital in Gatineau,Que., as saying that his wife and their two sons, aged six and 13, were on the flight. CBC reported they are not Canadian citizens.

Before the plane vanished, the pilots sent a final message to ask Niger air control to change its route because of heavy rain, Burkina Faso Transport Minister Jean Bertin Ouedraogo said.

French forces, who have been in Mali since January 2013 to rout al-Qaida-linked extremists who had controlled the north, searched for the plane, alongside the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA.

Algerian Transport Minister Omar Ghoul, whose country's planes were also searching for wreckage, described it as a "serious and delicate affair."


France's foreign minister said no wreckage had been found, but that the plane "probably crashed."

Air navigation services lost track of the MD-83 about 50 minutes after takeoff from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, at 0155 GMT (9:55 p.m. EDT 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 north of Mali for the plane, which was travelling from Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou, to Algiers, the Algerian capital.

More than 50 French were onboard the plane along with 27 Burkina Faso nationals and five passengers Canada and several other countries. The flight crew was Spanish.

The flight was being operated by Spanish airline Swiftair, the company said in a statement, and the plane belonged to Swiftair.

The plane sent its last message around 0130 GMT (9:30 p.m. EDT), asking Niger air control to change its route because of heavy rains in the area, Burkina Faso Transport Minister Jean Bertin Ouedraogo said.

The disappearance of the Air Algerie plane comes after a spate of aviation disasters. Fliers around the globe have been on edge ever since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared in March on its way to Beijing. Searchers have yet to find a single piece of wreckage from the jet with 239 people on board.

Last week, a Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down by a surface-to-air missile while flying over a war-torn section of Ukraine. A Canadian was among the almost 300 who perised in that disaster. The back-to-back disasters involving Boeing 777s flown by the same airline were too much of a coincidence for many fliers.

Then this week, U.S., Canadian and European airlines started cancelling flights to Tel Aviv after a rocket landed near the city's airport. Finally, on Wednesday, a Taiwanese plane crashed during a storm, killing 48 people.


Original story July 24

Burkina Faso's transport minister says five Canadians were among those onboard an Air Algerie flight that officials said disappeared from radar over northern Mali after heavy rains were reported.

The plane was carrying 116 people from Burkina Faso to Algeria's capital, according to the plane's owner and government officials in France and Burkina Faso. Nearly half of the passengers were French.

Air navigation services lost track of the MD-83 about 50 minutes after takeoff from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, Wednesday evening, the official Algerian news agency APS said.

The list of passengers includes 51 French, 27 Burkina Faso nationals, eight Lebanese, six Algerians, five Canadians, four Germans, two Luxemburg nationals, one Swiss, one Belgium, one Egyptian, one Ukrainian, one Nigerian, one Cameroonian and one Malian, Burkina Faso Transport Minister Jean Bertin Ouedraogo said. The six crew members are Spanish, according to the Spanish pilots' union.

The plane sent its last message about half an hour later, asking Niger air control to change its route because of heavy rains in the area, Ouedraogo said.

French Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier said the plane 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 said 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 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.

Air Algerie Flight 5017 was being operated by Spanish airline Swiftair, the company said in a statement. The Spanish pilots' union said the plane belonged to Swiftair.

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-Qaida-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.

The official, not authorized to speak publicly, said on condition of anonymity that they primarily have shoulder-fired weapons — not enough to hit a passenger plane flying at cruising altitude.

The report that five Canadians were on the Air Algerie flight comes a week after a Canadian 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. Andrei Anghel was a 24-year-old medical student from Ajax, east of Toronto.

Swiftair, a private Spanish airline, said the Air Algerie flight was carrying 110 passengers and six crew, and left Burkina Faso for Algiers at 0117 GMT Thursday (9:17 p.m. EDT Wednesday), but had not arrived at the scheduled time of 0510 GMT (1:10 a.m. EDT 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 Canadian Press

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