At least 111 people were killed on Thursday when a jetliner carrying Lebanese workers home to Beirut for the holidays crashed into the sea off Benin.

Of the 24 initial survivors of the crash, four died later in hospital.

Rescuers worked under spotlights through the night trying to clear away the 727's wreckage while they searched for survivors.

Clothing and wrapped gifts drifted on the water as dawn broke, showing most of the wreckage still in the water about 100 metres from the beach.

About 50 people were on the shoreline, gathering around the bodies to identify their friends or relatives.

As many as 20 patrol boats from the Benin navy were patrolling offshore.

Officials were unsure exactly how many people were on the plane. The manifest showed 156 passengers, but there was no record of how many crew members were on board.

There was no known cause for the crash, which occurred shortly after the plane took off from the Cotonou airport in clear weather at about 2:55 p.m. local time.

Officials said the UTA Boeing 727 plane had problems retracting its landing gear and smashed into a building at the end of the runway. The plane exploded and then crashed into the shallow sea waters just off the coast.

According to airport officials, the plane had been chartered by two Lebanese men. They said most of the passengers were believed to be returning home for the Christmas holidays.

Thousands of Lebanese immigrants live and work in West Africa.