Three French defence ministry staff and two others were killed when a plane heading towards Libya to monitor migrant trafficking routes crashed shortly after take-off at Malta’s main airport.
The US-registered light aircraft, on lease to a company in Luxembourg, was seen banking sharply before plummeting to the ground and exploding in a huge fireball at around 7:20am local time.
Malta’s government said the five men were part of a French customs surveillance operation tracing routes of human and drug trafficking.
The plane, a twin-propeller Fairchild Metroliner Mark III, had been heading for Misrata in north-west Libya.
A government spokesman said witnesses had confirmed there was no explosion prior to impact. Actor Edward De Gaetano was returning to London when he witnessed the aftermath of the crash.
He said: “We were about to take off; moments before we did from our windows we could see a massive explosion – at first we had no idea what caused it.”
He added: “Then there was a second explosion and I thought ‘Oh my God, this is not just a fire’. We are all a bit stunned.”
Mr De Gaetano said it was “definitely not a military plane” which had crashed – with flames from the explosion “engulfing” a nearby tree.
Before the crash he said everything seemed “very, very normal”.
Video shot by Mr De Gaetano shows flames and thick black smoke billowing from the crash site next to the runway.
Another eyewitness quoted by the Times of Malta said: “I heard the scream of a plane, and then saw it come crashing down. It burst into flames immediately.
“Very little of the plane was left, just some debris.”
The Maltese government confirmed that all of the victims’ remains have been recovered.
French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian confirmed that three of the victims were ministry staff while the other two were contractors working for the company who leased the crashed aircraft.
The French Customs department quashed earlier reports that the victims were French customs officials, tweet that none were aboard the downed plane.
Early reports that the victims had been officials from the EU’s border agency were also quickly denied. Frontex said none of its staff had been involved.
The airport was closed for four hours while debris was cleared, causing dozens of flights to be delayed and cancelled and officials warned it would take “some time” for the schedule to return to normal.
A spokesman for the airport at Luqa said: “We can confirm that the five crew on board the aircraft are deceased. Our thoughts are with families of people involved in this accident.
“An investigation is currently ongoing and we are working with all the authorities to provide them with any assistance necessary.”
Libya is the main point of departure for the tens of thousands of migrants who have been paying smugglers to bring them toward Europe by boat.
Malta’s International Airport is used for surveillance flights to Libya due to its proximity. The Maltese government said the flight had been due to return to the island within hours without landing in third countries.
The government added that the French surveillance operation has been active for about five months, tasked with tracing illicit trafficking routes “of all sorts, including human and drug trafficking.”
The Metroliner was registered in the US and leased to a Luxembourg company, CAE Aviation group.
In a statement, CAE Aviation said that the aircraft had no history of technical issues.