NEW INFORMATION: Air Algerie Flight AH5017 Crashed in Mali, Airport Official Says

By: AP and NBC News Email
By: AP and NBC News Email

NEW YORK (NBC NEWS) -- A commercial jetliner carrying 116 people crashed on Thursday after adjusting its route due to a storm and vanishing in western Africa, an official said. It was the third major aviation disaster in a week.

Air Algerie Flight AH5017 vanished about 50 minutes after it left Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso on its way to Algiers, Algeria.

The jet took off at 1:17 a.m. local time (9:17 p.m. ET on Wednesday). Burkina Faso's Transport Minister Jean Bertin Ouedraogo told reporters its pilots had asked to change route about 21 minutes after takeoff after reporting heavy rains.

An airport official confirmed to NBC News that wreckage from the plane had been located in neighboring Mali. According to the airport's Facebook page, former Cuban leader Fidel Castro's niece, Mariela, was among the passengers. NBC News could not immediately verify that report.

In an earlier statement, Spain-based Swiftair confirmed it operated the McDonnell Douglas MD-83. Swiftair said 110 passengers and six crew were aboard the jet. It had been due to land in the Algerian capital at 5:10 a.m. local time (12:10 a.m. ET), but the flight was missing for hours before the news was made public.

Citing the transport minister, The Associated Press reported the flight was carrying 51 French nationals, 27 Burkina Faso nationals, eight Lebanese, six Algerians, five Canadians, two Luxemburg nationals, one Swiss, one Belgian, one Egyptian, one Ukrainian, one Nigerian, one Cameroonian and one Malian.

Earlier, an Algerian official told Reuters that the last contact with the jet was over Gao, Mali. An influx of arms and fighters from the 2011 Libyan civil and an attempted coup the following year has left Mali in turmoil. Gao has witnessed recent attacks involving both Tuareg separatist rebels and al Qaeda-linked militants.

The incident comes in the wake of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 being shot down by a surface-to-air missle over eastern Ukraine last Thursday.

On Wednesday, U.K. pilots also warned passengers of the "illusion of safety" after some airlines halted flights to an Israeli airport because of the risk of rockets fired by militants.

The Federal Aviation Administration classes Mali as a potentially hostile region.

“Civil aircraft operating into, out of, within or over Mali are at risk of encountering insurgent small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades, rocket and mortar fire, and anti-aircraft fire, to include shoulder-fired man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS),” the FAA said in a notice. Any U.S. aircraft flying below 24,000 feet “must obtain current threat information” and comply with all FAA regulations.

However, one senior French official told The Associated Press that it seemed unlikely that fighters in Mali had the kind of weaponry needed to shoot down a plane.

David Gleave, an aviation expert at Britain’s Loughborough University, described the MD-83 as a "pretty solid airplane in general." He added: "It flies fairly simply, pilots understand how it flies so it is a solid, reliable workhorse … it is unlikely to be the flight crew didn't understand the aircraft."

Gleave said that a variety of problems might be behind the plane's disappearance - potentially ranging from maintenance issues to human error. "“It could be something as mundane as multiple vulture strikes," he added.

Founded in 1986, Spain’s Swiftair flies in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. According to its website, it has 30 planes and employs around 400 people. On Jan. 24, 2012, one of its planes – a MD-83 – was damaged landing at Afghanistan’s Kandahar Airport, according to air safety website Aviation Safety Network. There were no fatalities. And on July 28, 1998, one of its cargo planes crashed on approach to Barcelona, Spain, killing two onboard, the site added.

Crashes involving Malaysia Airlines alone have sent this year’s death toll in aviation disasters beyond the annual global average, according to figures from the International Air Transport Association. The downing of MH17 and March 8 disappearance of MH370 account for 537 deaths – higher than the five-year worldwide average total of 517.

A TransAsia flight also crash-landed on a Taiwanese island Wednesday, killing 48 people.

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ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) -- An Air Algerie flight carrying 116 people from Burkina Faso to Algeria's capital disappeared from radar early Thursday over northern Mali after heavy rains were reported, according to the plane's owner and government officials in France and Burkina Faso.

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.

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 around 0130 GMT (9:30 p.m. EDT), 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 center 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.

Swiftair, a private Spanish airline, said the plane 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.
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ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) -- Authorities say a flight operated by Air Algerie carrying 110 passengers and a crew of six has disappeared from the radar on a flight from Burkina Faso to Algiers.

The official Algerian news agency said air navigation services lost track of the Swiftair plane 50 minutes after takeoff -- at 0155 GMT. Flight AH5017 had been missing for hours before news was made public.

Swiftair, the private Spanish airline, confirmed that 116 people were aboard.

"In keeping with procedures, Air Algerie has launched its emergency plan," the agency quoted the airline as saying.

The flight path of Flight AH5017 from Ouagadougou, the capital of the west African nation of Burkina Faso, to Algiers was not immediately clear.

Ougadougou is in a nearly straight line south of Algiers, passing over Mali where unrest continues in the north.


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