Four of the five Canadians on board Air Algerie Flight AH5017 that crashed over northern Mali are from the same family, CBC News has confirmed, as officials from several countries, including France, say the wreckage has been found.
The Canadian passengers included two men, two children and one woman. They were among the 116 people on the flight that 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.
French President François Hollande's office announced the crash site was discovered in Mali, near the border with Burkina Faso, which lies south of Mali.
"A French military unit has been sent to secure the site and gather the first elements of information," Hollande's office said in a statement, adding the plane was clearly identifiable despite being broken up.
The statement came after Gen. Gilbert Diendere, a close aide to Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaore, said the wreckage as well as human remains were discovered near the village of Boulikessi in Mali, about 50 kilometres from the border with Burkina Faso. Malian state television also said the wreckage was found in the village of Boulikessi.
Diendere, who also headed the crisis committee set up to co-ordinate the search for the plane, said rescuers went to the border area after learning of eyewitness reports near the Malian town of Gossi that a plane went down in the area.
Diendere said searchers "found human remains and the wreckage of the plane totally burnt and scattered."
"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," he said.
Quebec woman among passengers
The husband of Isabelle Prévost, of Sherbrooke, Que., confirmed to Radio-Canada that she was on board the flight that vanished Thursday in a rainstorm over northern Mali. It was not known whether she was one of the four Canadian family members flying together.
A resident of Gatineau, Que., Mamadou Zoungrana, told CBC News he believes his wife and sons, who are six and 13 years old, were on the same flight. He has still not received confirmation from the airline that they boarded. Zoungrana, a technologist at Papineau Hospital in Gatineau, says his wife and two sons are not Canadian citizens, but he was hoping to bring them to Canada.
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.
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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.
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.
'Bodies were torn apart'
"We found the plane by accident" near Boulikessi, said Sidi Ould Brahim, a Tuareg separatist who travelled Thursday from Mali to a refugee camp for Malians in Burkina Faso. "The plane was burned, there were traces of rain on the plane, and bodies were torn apart," he told The Associated Press.
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 Diendere.
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.
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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.
2/3 We are aware of reports that Canadians were on board. Canadian consular officials stand ready to provide assistance.— Lynne Yelich (@Lynne_Yelich) July 24, 2014
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 Burkina Faso 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.
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 ET