SEARCH teams scouring the Sahara desert for a missing passenger plane which came down with 116 people on board were last night reported to have found wreckage.
Air Algerie Flight AH5017 was travelling from the Burkina Faso capital Ougadougou to Algiers when it disappeared from radar during a heavy storm.
The plane vanished over northern Mali, an area which has seen a violent uprising from Islamic militants with links to
al-Qaeda in recent years.
The crash was last night being blamed on poor weather, with the rebels unlikely to have the capability to bring down a commercial airliner.
Earlier, France, the former colonial power from which Mali won independence in 1960, had joined the search for the plane using Mirage warplanes.
French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said: “Despite intensive search efforts, no trace of the aircraft has yet been found. The plane probably crashed.”
Air navigation services lost track of the MD-83 at about 1:55am, around 50 minutes after take-off from Ouagadougou.
More than 50 French nationals were on board, with 27 Burkina Faso nationals and passengers from a dozen other countries. The flight crew was Spanish.
The flight was being operated by Spanish airline Swiftair, which owned the plane.
The plane sent its last message at about 1:30am, asking Niger air control to change its route because of heavy rain.
Speaking from a crisis centre in the foreign ministry, French transport minister Frédéric Cuvillier did not specify exactly where the plane disappeared over Mali, or whether it was in an area controlled by rebels.
Algerian prime minister Abdelmalek Sellal said on state television that ten minutes before disappearing, the plane was in contact with air traffic controllers in Gao, a city essentially under the control of the Malian government.
A spokesman for the Algerian crisis centre said a number of aircraft were searching for the plane.
He added: “As long as we haven’t found the wreckage, we can’t talk of a crash. We talk of loss of contact.”
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 government which is based in the capital Bamako.
A senior French official said it seemed unlikely that fighters in Mali had the kind of weaponry that could shoot down a plane.
The official said the fighters have weapons fired from the shoulder, which are not powerful enough to hit a passenger plane flying at cruising altitude.
Swiftair said it has been unable to make contact with the plane and it was trying to ascertain what had happened. It said the crew included two pilots and four cabin staff.
The MD-83 is one of a series of jets built since the early 1980s by US plane-maker McDonnell Douglas.
The disappearance of the Air Algerie plane comes after a spate of aviation disasters. Fliers have been on edge ever since Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared in March, a situation which has been compounded by Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 being shot down over Ukraine last week.