OUAGADOUGO, Burkina Faso – An Air Algerie jetliner with 116 people on board crashed Thursday in a rainstorm over restive Mali, and its wreckage was found near the border of neighboring Burkina Faso – the third major international aviation disaster in a week.
The plane, owned by Spanish company Swiftair and leased by Algeria's flagship carrier, disappeared from radar less than an hour after it took off from Burkina Faso's capital of Ouagadougou for Algiers.
French fighter jets, U.N. peacekeepers and others hunted for the wreckage of the MD-83 in the remote region, where scattered separatist violence may hamper an eventual investigation into what happened.
It was found about 30 miles from the border of Burkina Faso near the village of Boulikessi in Mali, a Burkina Faso presidential aide said.
“They found human remains and the wreckage of the plane totally burnt and scattered,” said Gen. Gilbert Diendere, a close aide to Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore and head of the panel set up to investigate the crash.
He said rescuers went to the area after speaking to a resident that he saw the plane go down 50 miles southwest of Malian town of Gossi.
Malian state television also said the debris of Flight 5017 was found in the village of Boulikessi and was found by a helicopter from Burkina Faso. Algeria's transport minister also said the wreckage had apparently been found.
“We found the plane by accident” near Boulikessi, said Sidi Ould Brahim, a Tuareg separatist who travelled from Mali to a refugee camp for Malians in Burkina Faso.
Families from France to Canada and beyond had been waiting anxiously for word about the jetliner and the fate of their loved ones aboard. Nearly half of the passengers were French, many en route home from Africa.
The pilots had sent a final message to ask Niger air control to change its route because of heavy rain, Burkina Faso Transport Minister Jean Bertin Ouedraogo said.
The vast deserts and mountains of northern Mali fell under control of ethnic Tuareg separatists and then al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremists after a military coup in 2012.
The French-led intervention scattered the extremists, but the Tuaregs have pushed back against the authority of the Bamako-based government. Meanwhile, the threat from Islamic militants hasn't disappeared, and France is giving its troops a new and larger anti-terrorist mission across the region.
A senior French official said it seems unlikely that fighters in Mali had the kind of weaponry that could shoot down a jetliner at cruising altitude. While al-Qaida's North Africa branch is believed to have an SA-7 surface-to-air missile, most airliners would normally fly out of range of these shoulder-fired weapons. They can hit targets flying up to roughly 12,000 to 15,000 feet.