ALGIERS (REUTERS, AFP) - An Air Algerie flight that went missing en route from Burkina Faso to Algiers has crashed, an Algerian aviation official told Reuters on Thursday.
"I can confirm that it has crashed," the official said, declining to give details of where the plane was or what caused the accident.
There were few clear indications of what might of happened to the aircraft, or whether there were casualties, but Burkino Faso Transport Minister Jean Bertin Ouedrago said it asked to change route at 0138 GMT because of a storm in the area.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said there has been no trace of the plane yet, and that it has probably crashed. "Despite intensive searches, no trace of the plane has been found as we speak," he said. "The plane has probably crashed. The searches are focusing at this stage on a vast strip of Malian territory around the region of Gao," in the restive north of the west African nation, he added.
"Contact was lost with the McDonnell-Douglas 83 at 01:47, a little after the pilots said they were diverting from the route due to meteorological reasons," he said. There were reports of heavy storms in the region.
The plane with 116 passengers and crew members on board went off the radar over the Malian region of Gao, some 500 km south of Algerian border. Two French fighter jets based in the region were dispatched to try to locate the airliner along its probable route after it went missing less than an hour after takeoff from Ouagadougou.
France's civil aviation body said crisis cells had been set up at the airports of Paris and Marseille.
An Air Algerie representative in Burkina Faso, Kara Terki, told a news conference that all the passengers on the plane were in transit, either for Europe, the Middle East or Canada. He said the passenger list included about 50 French, 24 Burkinabe, eight Lebanese, four Algerians, two from Luxembourg, one Belgian, one Swiss, one Nigerian, one Cameroonian, one Ukrainian and one Romanian. Lebanese officials said there were at least 10 Lebanese citizens on the flight.
Gao in north Mali was seized by jihadists groups for several months in 2012 and remains very unstable despite the Islamists being driven out in a French-led offensive. A diplomat in the Malian capital Bamako also said that the north of the country - which lies on the plane's likely flight path - was struck by a powerful sandstorm overnight.
Whatever the cause, another plane crash is likely to add to nerves in the industry after a Malaysia Airlines plane was downed over Ukraine last week, a TransAsia Airways crashed off Taiwan during a thunderstorm on Wednesday and airlines cancelled flights into Tel Aviv due to the conflict in Gaza.
One of Algeria's worst air disasters occurred in February this year, when a C-130 military aircraft carrying 78 people crashed in poor weather in the mountainous northeast, killing more than 70 people. The plane was flying from the desert garrison town of Tamanrasset in Algeria's deep south to Constantine, 320 kilometres east of Algiers.
Tamanrasset was the site of the country's worst ever civilian air disaster, in March 2003. In that accident, all but one of 103 people on board were killed when an Air Algerie passenger plane crashed on takeoff after one of its engines caught fire. The sole survivor, a young Algerian soldier, was critically injured.
In December 2012, two Algerian military jets on a routine training mission collided in mid-air near Tlemcen in the northwest, killing both pilots. A month earlier, a twin-turboprop CASA C-295 military transport aircraft, which was carrying a cargo of paper for the printing of banknotes in Algeria, crashed in southern France. The five soldiers and one central bank representative on board were all killed.