ADDIS ABABA (AFP) - Ethiopia will observe a national day of mourning on Monday (March 11) as investigators search for bodies and clues into the crash of a Nairobi-bound Boeing minutes after take-off from Addis Ababa, killing all 157 people on board.
Ethiopian Airlines said it will work with Boeing, the national civil aviation authority and international experts in trying to unravel what caused the brand new plane to come down just about six minutes into its flight.
Eight crew and 149 passengers from 35 countries died when flight ET302 ploughed into a field near Tulu Fara village outside the town of Bishoftu, some 60km south-east of Addis Ababa.
A witness told AFP on Sunday that the plane came down in flames.
"The plane was already on fire when it crashed to the ground. The crash caused a big explosion," Mr Tegegn Dechasa recounted at the site, where passenger belongings, human remains and airplane parts were littered around a massive crater at the point of impact.
"The plane was in flames in its rear side shortly before the crash. The plane was swerving erratically before the crash."
A local farmer, Mr Sisay Gemechu, said: "The plane seemed to be aiming to land at a nearby level open field, but crashed before reaching there."
Among the dead were tourists, business travellers and United Nations staff, including some who worked for the World Food Programme, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
The IOM said in a statement that early indications were that 19 staff of UN-affiliated organisations died in the crash.
Many were headed for an annual assembly of the UN Environment Programme, which opens in Nairobi on Monday with some 4,700 heads of state, ministers, business leaders, senior UN officials and civil society representatives.
Ethiopian Airlines, the continent's biggest carrier, said "the search will continue in the morning".
"A committee comprising of Ethiopian Airlines, Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority and Ethiopian Transport Authority has been set up to carry out the investigations," it added.
"Once the... deceased are identified, their bodies will be delivered to their families and loved ones."
The United States National Transportation Safety Board said it would send investigators to assist, and Canada, which lost 18 citizens, said consular officials were "immediately deployed" to Addis Ababa to determine the facts.
Ethiopia's Parliament declared a national day of mourning for Monday amid a global stream of condolences.
"Deeply saddened by the news this morning of the plane crash in Ethiopia, claiming the lives of all on board," tweeted UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
WIFE, SON, DAUGHTER DEAD
Slovak MP Anton Hrnko was among the bereaved.
"It is with deep sorrow that I announce that my dear wife, Blanka, son Martin and daughter Michala, died in the air disaster in Addis Ababa this morning," he wrote on Facebook.
The Boeing 737-800 Max was new, delivered to state-owned Ethiopian Airways on Nov 15, the carrier said.
The plane is the same type as the Indonesian Lion Air jet that crashed in October, about 13 minutes after take-off from Jakarta, killing all 189 people on board.
Ethiopian Airlines said the plane had taken off at 8.38am on Sunday from Bole International Airport and "lost contact" six minutes later.
According to the airline, Kenya had the largest number of casualties with 32, followed by Canada with 18, Ethiopia, nine, then Italy, China, and the US, with eight each.
Britain and France each had seven citizens on board, Egypt six, and Germany five - though the breakdown was not final.
France's government later said there were eight French victims.
African Union commission chief Moussa Faki Mahamat spoke of "utter shock and immense sadness", while Mr Mahboub Maalim, executive secretary of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, East African bloc, said the region and the world were in mourning.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his British counterpart Theresa May both described the news as "devastating".
Sympathy messages also came from the governments of Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Germany, France and the US.
Ethiopian Airlines chief executive officer Tewolde GebreMariam said the plane had flown in from Johannesburg earlier on Sunday, spent three hours in Addis and was "despatched with no remark", meaning no problems were flagged.
Asked if the pilot had made a distress call, the CEO said "the pilot mentioned that he had difficulties and he wants to return. He was given clearance" to turn around.