PARIS — French soldiers secured a black box from the Air Algerie wreckage site in a desolate region of restive northern Mali on Friday, the French president said. Terrorism hasn’t been ruled out as a cause, although officials say the most likely reason for the catastrophe that killed all onboard is bad weather.
At least 116 people were killed in Thursday’s disaster, nearly half of whom were French. President Francois Hollande put the number of victims at 118, a discrepancy that couldn’t be immediately clarified.
One of two black boxes was recovered from the wreckage in the Gossi region of Mali near the border with Burkina Faso, and was taken to the northern city of Gao, where a French contingent is based, Hollande told reporters after an emergency meeting with government ministers.
“There are, alas, no survivors,” Hollande said. “I share the pain of families living through this terrible ordeal.”
A team of French air accident investigators was being sent to Mali, he said.
Air Algerie and private Spanish airline Swiftair, which was operating Flight 5017, said Thursday there were 116 people onboard.
French television showed images of the crash site scene taken by a soldier from Burkina Faso. The brief footage showed a desolate area with scattered debris that was unrecognizable. There were bits of twisted metal but no identifiable parts such as the fuselage or tail, or victims’ bodies. Scrubby vegetation could be seen scattered in the background.
Burkina soldiers were reportedly the first to reach the site, apparently Thursday evening, and the images were viewed at the Burkina Faso crisis center.
Gen. Gilbert Diendere, a close aide to Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore and head of the crisis committee set up to investigate the disaster, said of the footage: “People expected to see an airplane sitting somewhere, and unfortunately it was debris scattered over about 550 yards, which made the search of the area very, very difficult.”
Burkina Faso Prime Minister Luc Adolphe Tiao reviewed videos of the wreckage site and said identifying the victims will be challenging.
“It will be difficult to reconstitute the bodies of the victims,” Tiao said at a news conference. “The human remains are so scattered.”
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 flew over the site, noting the wreckage was in a concentrated area. A column of soldiers in about 30 vehicles was sent 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,” Diendere said.
Many of the passengers were scheduled to head on to Europe after the plane was due to arrive in the Algerian capital from Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou.
The president has said that France will spare no efforts to uncover why the plane went down — the third major plane disaster around the world within a week. A Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down last week 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.
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 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.
“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.”
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on RTL radio: “Terrorist groups are in the zone. … We know these groups are hostile to Western interests.”
The MD-83 aircraft, owned by Swiftair and leased by Algeria’s flagship carrier, disappeared from radar screens less than an hour after it took off early Thursday from Ouagadougou for Algiers. The plane had requested permission to change course because of bad weather.
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 MD-83 had passed its annual air navigation certificate renewal inspection in January without any problems, Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said Friday. The European Aviation Safety Agency also carried out a “ramp inspection” — or unannounced spot check — of the plane in June without incident.
Santamaria also said a ramp inspection was done on the plane in Marseille, France, on July 22 — two days before the plane went down.
Ramp inspections “are limited to on-the-spot assessments and cannot substitute for proper regulatory oversight,” the EASA website says. “Ramp inspections serve as pointers, but they cannot guarantee the airworthiness of a particular aircraft.”
AP journalists Ciaran Giles in Madrid, Spain, and Brahima Ouedraogo in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, contributed to this report.