PARIS (AP) — French soldiers on Friday secured one of the black boxes from the Air Algerie plane that went down in restive northern Mali with the loss of at least 116 people, French President Francois Hollande said Friday. Terrorism has not been ruled out as a cause, although officials say the most likely cause is bad weather.
The black box was recovered from the wreckage, in the Gossi region near the border with Burkina Faso, and is being taken to the northern city of Gao, where a French contingent is based, Hollande told reporters after a crisis meeting with top ministers.
“There are, alas, no survivors,” Hollande said. “I share the pain of families living through this terrible ordeal.”
Nearly half of the passengers aboard the flight were French, many headed on to Europe after arriving in the Algerian capital from the Burkina Faso capital, Ouagadougou.
The president has said that France will spare no efforts to uncover the cause of the crash — the third major plane disaster around the world within a week.
“There are hypotheses, notably weather-related, but we don’t rule out anything because we want to know what happened,” Hollande said.
“What we know is that the debris is concentrated in a limited space, but it is too soon to draw conclusions,” he added.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve added, speaking to RTL radio: “Terrorist groups are in the zone. … We know these groups are hostile to Western interests.”
The MD-83 aircraft, owned by Spanish company Swiftair and leased by Algeria’s flagship carrier, disappeared from radar less than an hour after it took off early Thursday from Ouagadougou for Algiers. The plane had requested permission to change course due to bad weather.
A team from France’s Accident Investigation Bureau has been sent to Mali, Hollande said.
A French Reaper drone based in Niger initially spotted the wreckage, French Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier told France-Info radio on Friday. Two helicopter teams also overflew, noting that the wreckage was in a concentrated area. A column of soldiers in some 30 vehicles were dispatched to the site, he said.
“We sent men, with the agreement of the Mali government, to the site, and they found the wreckage of the plane with the help of the inhabitants of the area,” said Gen. Gilbert Diendere, a close aide to Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore and head of the crisis committee set up to investigate the flight.
The pilots had sent a final message to ask Niger air control to change its route because of heavy rain, Burkina Faso Transport Minister Jean Bertin Ouedraogo said Thursday.
The vast deserts and mountains of northern Mali fell under control of ethnic Tuareg separatists and then al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremists after a military coup in 2012.
French forces intervened in January 2013 to rout Islamist extremists controlling the region. A French soldier was killed earlier this month near the major town of Gao, where French troops remain.
The intervention scattered the extremists, but the Tuaregs have pushed back against the authority of the Bamako-based government. Meanwhile, the threat from Islamic militants hasn’t disappeared, and France is giving its troops a new and larger anti-terrorist mission across the region.
The crash was the third airline disaster within a week.
Last week, a Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down over war-torn eastern Ukraine; the U.S. has blamed it on separatists firing a surface-to-air missile. On Wednesday, a Taiwanese plane crashed during a storm, killing 48 people.
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