Wreck of crashed Algerian plane spotted in Mali desert

Pilot of aircraft carrying 116 passengers and crew asked to change course to avoid a storm

The wreck of an Air Algerie flight carrying 116 people which disappeared from radar over northern Mali today has been spotted in the country's desert, Mali's president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita has said.

“I have just been informed that the wreckage has been found between Aguelhoc and Kidal,” Mr Keita said during a meeting of political, religious and civil society leaders in Bamako. He did not give any more details.

Air navigation services lost track of the MD-83 about 50 minutes after take-off from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, at 01.55 (GMT), the official Algerian news agency APS said.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said Air Algerie Flight 5017 had “probably crashed”.

Two French fighter jets are among aircraft scouring the rugged north of Mali for the plane today, 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 passengers from a dozen other countries. The flight crew was Spanish. 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 at around 0130 GMT, 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. This week, US and European airlines started cancelling flights to Tel Aviv after a rocket landed near the city’s airport.

Yesterday, a Taiwanese plane crashed during a storm, killing 48 people.

French transport minister Frederic Cuvillier said the Air Algerie flight vanished over northern Mali. He spoke from a crisis centre set up in the French foreign ministry.

Mr Cuvillier did not 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 plane had been missing for hours before the news was made public.

It was not clear why airline or government officials did not make it public earlier.

The flight path of the plane from Ouagadougou to Algiers was not 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 the 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 said that they primarily have shoulder-fired weapons - not enough to hit a passenger plane flying at cruising altitude. Swiftair, a private Spanish airline, said the plane was carrying 110 passengers and six crew, and left Burkina Faso for Algiers at 0117 GMT but had not arrived at the scheduled time of 05.10 GMT.

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.

Algerian aircraft were overflying the region around Gao to try to locate wreckage, said Houaoui Zoheir, spokesman for the Algerian crisis centre.

The passengers include 51 French, 27 Burkina Faso nationals, eight Lebanese, six Algerians, five Canadians, four Germans, two Luxembourg nationals, one Swiss, one Belgian, one Egyptian, one Ukrainian, one Nigerian, one Cameroonian and one Malian, Mr Ouedraogo said.

The six crew members are Spanish, according to the Spanish pilots’ union. The MD-83 is part of a series of jets built since the early 1980s by McDonnell Douglas, a US plane maker now owned by Boeing.

The MD-80s were the workhorse of domestic air travel in the US and are used for flights of a few hours over land elsewhere.