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Updated: Thu, 24 Jul 2014 15:48:23 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

Air Algerie Flight AH5017 wreckage spotted in northeastern Mali, president says



An Air Algerie MD-83 aircraft carrying over 100 people including five Canadians from Burkina Faso to Algeria's capital crashed early Thursday over northern Mali. Kevin Cleyhens/Associated Press

An Air Algerie MD-83 aircraft carrying over 100 people including five Canadians from Burkina Faso to Algeria's capital crashed early Thursday over northern Mali. Kevin Cleyhens/Associated Press

The wreckage of an Air Algerie flight with 116 people on board, including five Canadians, has been spotted between two northeastern Mali towns, according to the country's president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

"I have just been informed that the wreckage has been found between Aguelhok and Kidal," Keita said during a meeting of political, religious and civil society leaders in Bamako, according to Reuters. He did not give any more details. 

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he was saddened to learn about the crash and confirmed that Canadians were among the victims

“The government of Canada is engaged with the relevant authorities and providing support on the ground as required," Harper said in a statement.

The plane was on its way from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, to the Algerian capital Algiers when it disappeared from radar and lost contact with air traffic controllers early morning local time on Thursday.

Prior to Keita's announcement, Radio France internationale, the international service of Radio France, reported that the wreckage had been spotted north of the community of Aguelhok in the region of Kidal in northeastern Mali. 

RFI reported that residents in the region heard loud explosions early Thursday morning and alerted the armed forces present in the region.

'Believe the plane crashed'

"Everything allows us to believe this plane crashed in Mali," French President Francois Hollande said in a statement after an emergency meeting in Paris with senior officials, adding the crew changed its flight path because of "particularly difficult weather conditions."

A resident who lives in a village in Mali about 80 kilometres southeast of the town of Gossi said he saw a plane coming down early Thursday, according to Gen. Gilbert Diendere, heading the crisis committee set up in Burkina Faso.

"We think that it is a reliable source because it corresponds to the latest radar images of the plane before it lost contact with air controllers," Diendere said.

Air navigation services lost track of the MD-83 about 50 minutes after takeoff, at 9:55 p.m. ET Wednesday, the official Algerian news agency APS said

French fighter jets were among the aircraft scouring the rugged northern Mali region for signs of the plane.

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 around 9:30 p.m. ET asking Niger air control to change its route because of heavy rains in the area, Burkina Faso Transport Minister Jean Bertin Ouedraogo said.

French Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier said the Air Algerie flight 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 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 six crew members are Spanish, according to the Spanish pilots' union, and the passengers aboard the jet include:

- 51 French.

- 27 Burkina Faso nationals,

- Eight Lebanese.

- Six Algerians.

- Five Canadians.

- Four Germans.

- Two Luxemburg nationals.

- One Swiss, one Belgian, one Egyptian, one Ukrainian, one Nigerian, one Cameroonian and one Malian.

Plane missing for hours

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.

Northern Mali fell under control of ethnic Tuareg separatists and then al-Qaeda-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.

Swiftair, a private Spanish airline, said the plane was carrying 110 passengers and six crew, and left BurkinaFaso for Algiers at 9:17 p.m. ET Wednesday, but had not arrived at the scheduled time of 1:10 a.m. ET 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 MD-80s were the workhorse of domestic air travel in the U.S. and are used for a flights of a few hours over land elsewhere.

The report that five Canadians were on the Air Algerie flight comes a week after a Canadian – Andrei Anghel, 24, from Ajax, Ont. – 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.

Gathering at airport

Said Chitour, an Algiers-based freelance reporter, said some of the passengers’ loved ones have gathered at the airport there to await any news.

The search for the plane will be difficult, Chitour said, as it was set to cross a large swath of the desert.

“It’s a very tough area where there’s nothing … it’s the middle of nowhere, really,” Chitour told CBC News Network.

Correction : An earlier version of this story based on Reuters information identified the missing jet as an Airbus A320. It is, in fact, a McDonnell Douglas MD-83. (Jul 24, 2014 6:52 AM)

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