ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — An Air Algerie jetliner carrying 116 people vanished Thursday in a rainstorm over restive northern Mali, and French officials say it has probably crashed — the third major international aviation disaster in a week.
French fighter jets, U.N. peacekeepers and others hunted for signs of wreckage of the MD-83 plane in the remote region, where scattered separatist violence may hamper the search and any eventual investigation into what happened.
Families from France to Canada and beyond waited anxiously for signs of Flight 5017 and their loved ones aboard. Nearly half of the passengers were French, many en route home from Africa.
The plane, owned by Spanish company Swiftair and leased by Air Algerie, disappeared from radar screens less than an hour after takeoff, en route from Burkina Faso’s capital of Ouagadougou to Algiers.
“Everything allows us to believe this plane crashed in Mali,” French President Francois Hollande said after an emergency meeting in Paris. He said the crew changed its flight path because of “particularly difficult weather conditions.”
Earlier, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters the plane “probably crashed” and no “trace of the aircraft has been found.”
His face drawn and voice somber, Fabius added, “If this catastrophe is confirmed, it would be a major tragedy that hits our entire nation, and many others.”
Conflicting reports emerged about wreckage spotted in two different sites, several hundred kilometers (miles) away from each other in the sparse, vast region where the Sahara Desert meets the rest of Africa.
Malian Communiciations Minister Mahamadou Camara told The Associated Press on Thursday night that the plane hadn’t yet been found and “the search is underway.” French military and diplomatic officials also said no wreckage had been found.
Before vanishing, the pilots 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.
A resident who lives in a village in Mali about 80 kilometers (50 miles) southeast of the town of Gossi said he saw a plane coming down early Thursday, according to Gen. Gilbert Diendere, heading the crisis committee set up in Burkina Faso.
“We think that it is a reliable source because it corresponds to the latest radar images of the plane before it lost contact with air controllers,” Diendere said.
Radar images show the plane deviated from its route, Diendere said. Gossi is nearly 200 kilometers (175 miles) southwest of Gao.
The French president said “all military means we have in Mali” were being activated for the search, through the night if needed. France has considerable military resources there because of its intervention that began in January 2013 to rout al-Qaida-linked extremists who were controlling the north.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, was helping in the search, U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said.
Algerian Transport Minister Omar Ghoul, whose country’s planes were also searching for wreckage, described it as a “serious and delicate affair.”
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.