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Algerian plane carrying 116 people vanishes over northern Mali

MALI: A passenger jet which vanished from radar over northern Mali in West Africa has “probably crashed”, France’s foreign minister has said. Two French fighter jets are searching for the Air Algerie plane, which was carrying 110 passengers and six crew.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius contradicted reports the jets had found wreckage in an inaccessible area of desert, halfway between Gao and Kidal. “Despite intensive searches, no trace of the plane has been found as we speak,” he said.

“The plane has probably crashed. The searches are focusing at this stage on a vast strip of Malian territory around the region of Gao.” The plane was travelling from Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou to the Algerian capital Algiers when it vanished around 50 minutes into the flight.

The pilot asked for permission to change route because of a sand storm around 20 minutes into the flight, said Burkina Faso Transport Minister Jean Bertin Ouedrago. He said the plane’s passenger list included 51 French citizens.

Also on the jet were 27 Burkina Faso nationals, eight Lebanese, six Algerians, five Canadians, four Germans, two Luxemburg nationals, one Swiss, one Belgium, one Egyptian, one Ukrainian, one Nigerian, one Cameroonian and one Malian.

The six crew members were Spanish, according to the Spanish pilots’ union. Ouagadougou Airport's official website had said Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban president Raul Castro and niece of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, was on the plane. But she reportedly called a Venezuelan news channel to dismiss the claims.

A French army spokesman said, “Two Mirage 2000 jets based in Africa were dispatched to try to locate the Air Algerie plane. They will search an area from its last known location along its probable route.”

Flight AH5017 is owned by Spanish private airline Swiftair and operated by Air Algerie. Swiftair said the aircraft took off from Burkina Faso at 1.17am local time and was supposed to land in Algiers at 5.10am local time but never reached its destination.

The McDonnell Douglas MD-83 had been missing for hours before news of its disappearance was made public. Ouagadougou is in a nearly straight line south of Algiers, separated by Mali where unrest continues in the north of the country.

Airlines had been warned not to fly over Mali in recent days, Sky News understands. However, a senior French official said it is unlikely that fighters in Mali could shoot down a plane. They are known to have shoulder-fired weapons which could not hit an aircraft travelling at a cruising altitude of some 33,000ft.

The plane was near Gao international airport in Mali when it dropped off radar. Sky’s Alistair Bunkall said there are reports in the Algerian media that the plane crashed after running out of fuel. But given the plane was 50 minutes - or about 300 miles - into its four-hour journey that is unlikely to be a cause, he said.

“A source is telling me that air traffic control asked the aircraft to divert near the Algerian border because of bad weather and to avoid another aircraft,” Bunkall said. “If true, I assume it didn't collide with the other aircraft otherwise we'd have reports of a second missing plane.”

It is believed 15 passengers were ultimately headed to Roissy-Charles-De-Gaulle airport outside Paris, and another seven were due to be travelling to Marseille. Swiftair has a fleet of more than 30 planes flying in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

AH5017’s disappearance comes less than six months after Algeria's worst air disaster in a decade. Some 77 people were killed when a military transport plane carrying members of the Algerian armed forces and their relatives hit a mountain and crashed near the village of Ouled Gacem in the east of the country.