Thursday, July 24, 2014

Air Algérie Flight Crashes in Northern Mali
Official plane route from Burkina Faso to Algeria where a
plane went down in northern Mali.
Wreckage Found Near Town of Gossi; Officials Decline to Say if There Were Survivors

Wall Street Journal
July 24, 2014 7:19 p.m. ET

An Air Algérie jetliner with at least 116 people on board crashed in northern Mali on Thursday, the airline and officials in Africa said, marking the latest in a string of airline incidents around the world to challenge aviation regulators and safety officials.

The jetliner, a Boeing Co. BA -1.82%  MD-83, took off from Burkina Faso en route to the Algerian capital, Algiers. Air Algérie Flight 5017 lost contact at 1:55 a.m. local time, 50 minutes after departing from Ouagadougou.

Roughly 12 hours later, officials in Burkina Faso, struggling to figure out what happened, got a phone call from a villager near the town of Gossi in northern Mali. The villager said he had walked up to the crash site, said an official in the National Civil Aviation Agency, who declined to say if there were any survivors.

The apparent crash of an Air Algerie flight is just the latest in a string of disasters for the airline industry in what has been the deadliest year for air travel since 2010.

In subsequent hours, planes from Burkina Faso's air force flew into the area, took photographs and attempted to email them to the aviation agency, only to be stymied by poor network coverage: "Certainly, tomorrow we will have those images," said the official.

The area had been hit by massive sand and lightning storms, which officials in Burkina Faso said may have contributed to the accident. Still, several ofiicials doubted how those factors alone could have downed an aircraft at cruising altitude.

"A sandstorm cannot get itself all the way up to 10,000 meters," or 30,000 feet, said a second official at the aviation agency.

Authorities now face the delicate task of retrieving wreckage and human remains from a desolate and tense conflict zone.

The fate of the plane reverberated far beyond the Sahara. Fifty-one passengers on board were French nationals, many of them due to catch connecting flights in Algiers to return home to France.

French President François Hollande summoned senior members of his cabinet for a crisis meeting Thursday, deploying fighter jets and other military forces in the region to search for wreckage over northern Mali—a Texas-size area.

By nightfall, France was plunged into a state of national mourning. Friends and family members of the missing passengers gathered at airports across France, awaiting updates.

"This is a moment of gravity and of pain," Mr. Hollande said.

The plane was also carrying 24 passengers from Burkina Faso, eight Lebanese, six Algerians, five Canadians and four Germans. The passenger list also included people from Luxembourg, Mali, Belgium, Niger, Cameroon, Egypt, Ukraine, Romania and Switzerland. The nationality of three passengers was still being verified. All six crew members aboard the plane are from Spain. The plane was operated by Swiftair SA, a Spanish charter company.

Northern Mali is the site of a simmering Islamist insurgency. Air Algérie SpA said it had ordered the plane to change course because of bad weather. Before losing contact, the plane had changed its flight path because of "particularly difficult weather conditions," Mr. Hollande said.

Still, the overflight of Mali is likely to fuel questions by airline executives and regulators over whether commercial jetliners should fly over conflict zones. Last week's downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over war-torn eastern Ukraine had ratcheted up that debate.

It also follows a temporary flight ban imposed by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration on American carriers using Tel Aviv's airport, after a Hamas-fired rocket landed nearby this week. The ban was lifted late Wednesday.

And in March, another Malaysia Airlines flight vanished, a mystery that still hasn't been solved.

French officials on Thursday said there were no signs the Air Algérie flight was shot down, but they weren't ruling out the possibility. The FAA has warned airlines to be extra vigilant when flying over Mali and has gone as far as to ban U.S. carriers from flying over the African country at lower altitudes, citing "insurgent activity," including the threat of antiaircraft missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and rockets.

Commercial jetliners flying in Africa have traditionally had the worst accident record. In the past five years, African carriers accounted for 23% of fatal aircraft accidents in the years spanning 2009 to 2013, even though the region sees far less flying than others.

The region last year suffered 7.45 crashes per one million flights. That is down significantly from its five-year average of 13.53 crashes per million flights, though still far greater than the global average of 2.51 crashes over the same five-year period, the International Air Transport Association said this year.

Since its medieval heyday as a thoroughfare for caravans traveling on camelback, northern Mali has been rendered barren by centuries of desertification that have left it a remote stretch, strewed with rocks and dunes.

That landscape is likely to hinder the recovery effort. Towns and military outposts are separated by hundreds of miles and the occasional nomadic tent camp. Massive sandstorms swirl up quickly, including one on Thursday.

The site also sits amid a civil war. For days, Malian media have reported small desert battles among a group of jihadists looking to impose Islamic law, a second militia that wants autonomy for the local Tuareg people, a third group that seeks to defend the interests of the resident Arab population, as well as Mali's weak military.

Armed convoys drive through frequently, trafficking weapons, cigarettes, and, some Western officials suspect, cocaine. In 2012, the area was conquered by a group of al Qaeda allies.

Last year, France dispatched thousands of troops to the area to chase terrorists, even scanning the desert with hand-held metal detectors to find buried weapons.

Still, Malian and French officials acknowledge the area remains infiltrated by al Qaeda-inspired jihadists; kidnapping of foreigners poses a distinct threat.

—Inti Landauro, Benoît Faucon, Robert Wall and Christopher Bjork contributed to this article.

Write to Stacy Meichtry at and Drew Hinshaw at

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