As the first images emerged of the crash site, showing a charred landscape and debris scattered over a wide area, French President Francois Hollande said in a sombre televised address: “Sadly, there are no survivors.”
France bore the brunt of the disaster with some 54 French citizens among the overall death toll of between 116 and 118, according to unexplained conflicting figures given by the carrier and French authorities.
Travellers from Burkina Faso, Lebanon, Algeria, Spain, Canada, Germany and Luxembourg also died in the crash, blamed on bad weather that forced the pilots to change course.
The French army released initial images of a scene of total devastation, with twisted and charred fragments of the McDonnell Douglas 83 jet littering a scorched earth in what is clearly a barren and remote environment.
Such was the apparent violence of the crash that debris was barely recognisable as parts of an aircraft.
“It is difficult to retrieve anything, even victims’ bodies, because we have only seen body parts on the ground,” said General Gilbert Diendiere, chief of staff at Burkina Faso’s presidency.
He was a member of a delegation sent to the crash site by President Blaise Compaore that arrived in the Gossi area, about 100km from Goa, northern Mali’s main city, on Friday afternoon.
“Debris was scattered over an area of 500 metres which is due to the fact that the plane hit the ground and then probably rebounded,” he added.
Scale of the tragedy
Meanwhile, the scale of the tragedy for some communities was becoming clear, as it emerged that 10 members of one French family died in the crash.
“It’s brutal. It has wiped an entire family from the earth,” said Patrice Dunard, mayor of Gex, where four of the Reynaud family lived.
And the small town of Menet in central France was left devastated when residents discovered that a local family of four – a couple, their 10-year-old daughter Chloe and their 14-year-old son Elno – had died.
Denise Labbe of the local town hall said Chloe had confided to her teacher that she was scared of taking a plane, which she was doing for the first time.
Hollande’s office said he would meet families of the victims on Saturday.
The McDonnell Douglas 83 jet, operated by Spanish charter firm Swiftair on behalf of Air Algerie, went down shortly after take-off from Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso on its way to Algiers.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said weather conditions appeared to be the most likely cause of the accident – the worst air tragedy for French nationals since the crash of the Air France A330 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in June 2009.
But Hollande insisted that no potential cause for the accident was being ruled out.
Swiftair has a good safety record, and the head of France’s civil aviation authority said Thursday that the MD-83 had passed through France this week and been given the all-clear.
The Spanish pilots’ union Sepla said the plane’s two Spanish pilots were “very experienced”.
The Air Algerie crash was the third worldwide in the space of just eight days, capping a disastrous week for the aviation industry.
On July 17, a Malaysia Airlines plane was shot down in restive eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board.
And a Taiwanese aircraft crashed in torrential rain in Taiwan on Wednesday, killing 48.
France was extremely active in the search and retrieval efforts for the Air Algerie plane, dispatching military forces and crash experts to the site after one of its drones found the wreckage.
There was already a strong French military presence in the area because of an offensive France launched in Mali last year to stop Islamist extremists and Tuareg rebels from marching onto the capital Bamako.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters that around 180 French and Malian forces had arrived on the crash site, as had 40 Dutch soldiers from the MINUSMA UN stabilisation force in Mali.
“Their mission is to make the zone secure and to allow information to be gathered, which will be essential for the investigation,” he said.
Mourning the loss
To assist the investigation, 20 French military police were already preparing to leave their base at Villacoublay for Gao in Mali.
The black box flight recorder of the plane has already been recovered, Hollande said earlier.
Because of the disaster, a summit of the leaders of four Indian Ocean nations with Hollande in the island nation of the Comoros was cancelled, with no new date set.
Air Algerie flies the four-hour passenger route from Ouagadougou to Algiers four times a week. The Spanish crew had already flown it five times with the same plane, Algeria’s transport minister said.
This year has already seen Algeria mourn the loss of another plane accident when a C-130 military aircraft carrying 78 people crashed in February in the country’s mountainous northeast, killing more than 70 on board.
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced a three-day period of national mourning for the latest crash, starting from Friday. – Sapa-AFP