Three French defence ministry officials and two private contractors died when their plane on a surveillance mission over the Mediterranean crashed at Malta International Airport during take-off, French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.
The flight was part of a French customs surveillance operation tracing routes of illicit trafficking, including drugs and people-smuggling.
The Fairchild Metroliner, a twin-propellered aircraft, crashed on take-off at around 7.20am at the island's main airport in Luqa.
“We can confirm that the five crew on board the aircraft are deceased. Our thoughts are with families of people involved in this accident,” Malta International Airport said in a statement.
“An investigation is currently ongoing and we are working with all the authorities to provide them with any assistance necessary.”
It is understood the plane tilted towards the right and crashed into the ground soon after lifting off, which is when it burst into flames.
Part of the burning wreckage has ended up on a road outside the perimeter of the airport.
Libya is the main point of departure for the tens of thousands of migrants who have been paying smugglers to bring them toward Europe by boat.
Malta’s International Airport is used for surveillance flights to Libya due to its proximity. The government said the French surveillance operation has been active for about five months.
The Metroliner was registered in the US and leased to a Luxembourg company, CAE Aviation group, which supplied the two contractors who were killed.
Actor Edward De Gaetano was on his way home back to London when he witnessed the aftermath of the crash.
“We were about to take off, moments before we did from our windows we could see a massive explosion - at first we had no idea what caused it,” he said.
“We quickly realised an aircraft carrier had crash landed. That is when everyone got a bit anxious.”
He added: “Then there was a second explosion and I thought ‘oh my God this is not just a fire’. We are all a bit stunned.”
Before the crash he said everything seemed “very, very normal”.
Air Malta Frontex confirmed that none of its staff were involved in the incident.
Earlier reports said that EU officials were on board the plane however Federica Mogherini, high representative of the EU for foreign affairs and security policy and vice president of the EU Commission, tweeted, saying that no EU officials were involved in the crash. “The flight was not related to any of the EU activities,” she added.
The airport said its aerodrome had been closed in light of the crash and asked passengers to check its website for updates.