Wreckage of missing plane with 116 people aboard believed to be found

LONDON (CNN) — An Air Algerie flight with at least 116 people on board which dropped off the radar in the early hours of Thursday appears to have crashed in a remote area of Mali.

Air Algerie said via Twitter that the plane has apparently crashed in the Tilemsi area, about 70 kilometers (45 miles) from the southeastern city of Gao.

Flight 5017 lost radar contact 50 minutes after takeoff from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, early Thursday. It was supposed to arrive at Algiers’ Houari Boumediene Airport about four hours later.

Ouagadougou Airport said in a statement on its website that French forces stationed in the area had detected the wreck of the plane between Gao and the town of Kidal, in a desert zone that is very difficult to access.

The remote location and security concerns mean it is unlikely that any medical help will get there within the day, the statement said.

Islamist militants have been fighting the Malian government and French forces in the region for months.

The town of Kidal was occupied some months ago by rebel fighters but French troops are now based there, backed up by the air force. Mali lies between Burkina Faso and Algeria.

The state-run Algeria Press Service news agency cited Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal as saying search operations for the plane, an MD-83, were still continuing.

The airline tweeted that among those on board were 50 people from France, 24 from Burkina Faso, eight Lebanese, six Algerians, five Canadians, four Germans, two from Luxembourg, one from Mali, one Cameroonian, one Belgian, one Ukrainian, one Romanian and one Swiss.

A U.S. State Department official said it was not aware at this time of any Americans on the flight.

The Ouagadougou Airport statement claimed that Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro, was among those on board.

However, the National Center for Sexual Education in Havana, Cuba, which Mariela Castro runs, denied the reports and told CNN she was at an event in Havana. Castro subsequently told a Telesur anchor who interviewed her by phone, “I’m alive, kicking, happy and healthy!”

France sets up hotline

French Secretary of Transport Frederic Cuvillier said “a large number of French passengers” were believed to be on board the plane, according to CNN’s French affiliate BFMTV.

France said it was actively seeking more information about the location of the missing flight.

“We are entirely mobilized in Paris as well as in Algiers and Ouagadougou where our embassies are in constant contact with local authorities and the airline,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement, adding that a hotline number has been established.

Storms on flight path

According to CNN meteorologist Mari Ramos, at the time of the flight, there were thunderstorms in the area of the flight path.

The flight path was through a turbulent area, so it is likely that if the plane was diverted because of weather, it was to avoid a bumpy flight. Thunderstorms are a very common occurrence at this time of year in the area.

The MD-83 is part of the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 family of twin-engine, single-aisle jets.

The plane belongs to a private Spanish company, Swiftair, but it appears to have been operated by Air Algerie.

Air Algerie is Algeria’s national airline, with flights to 28 countries.

The deadliest incident in the airline’s history occurred in March 2003 when a domestic flight crashed after takeoff, killing 102 people on board. One person survived.

In February, a Hercules C-130 military aircraft crashed in the mountains of eastern Algeria, killing 77 of the 78 people on board.

Flight 5017’s disappearance comes exactly a week after a Malaysia Airlines plane was brought down in Ukraine with 298 people on board.

CNN’s Carol Jordan, Claudia Rebaza, Yasmin Amer, Brian Walker and Saeed Ahmed contributed to this report.

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