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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Was Mali plane crash a terror attack? Mystery of how the plane came down in terrorist heartland

   


Mystery shrouded the downing of an Air Algerie flight that crashed in the terrorist heartland of northern Mali with 116 people on board – almost half of them French. 
Almost exactly a week after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down by a surface-to-air missile while flying over Ukraine, officials were unable to provide an explanation for the crash in Africa. 
However, there was speculation the plane crash was an act of terrorism.
The Air Algerie flight disappeared from radar screens over Mali 50 minutes after take off en route from Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso to Algiers at 1.47am local time over Mali. 

The pilot had contacted Niger’s control tower in Niamey to change course because of a storm in the Sahara, they said.
France, which has become the second European nation to go into mourning over an airline tragedy in a week, said 51 of its citizens were among those feared dead on Flight AH 5017.
Many were said to be expatriates travelling back to France for the holidays. 

In the hours after the flight was reported to be missing, President Francois Hollande said: “Everything suggests this plane has crashed. Everything must be done to find this plane.”
After a day of fruitless searches, Mali’s president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, announced debris from the missing jet had been spotted between Aguelhoc and Kidal – an inhospitable area in the desert and a hotbed of Islamist extremism. 

Kidal is the birthplace of a Tuareg uprising that plunged Mali into chaos in 2012, leading to a coup in the capital Bamako and the occupation of the northern half of the country by militants linked to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). 

A French-led intervention last year dispersed the extremists, but the Tuaregs still pose a serious threat in the north, as do a string of other fractious Islamist groups.
While AH5017 clearly changed direction due to bad weather, some experts doubted a storm could have caused a crash. 

Jean Serrat, a former airline pilot, said the causes were more likely to be “either a terror strike on board” or a missile strike like the one that brought down MH17 last Thursday, killing 298 people – 194 of them Dutch. 

Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, said: “We cannot, we must not rule out any theory before having all the evidence at our disposal.”
Confirming the plane had changed course due to “weather concerns”, Mr Fabius added: “If this catastrophe is confirmed, it is a major tragedy to strike this nation.” 

Radio France International said locals had heard “loud explosions” early in the morning near Kidal. 

Efforts to reach the wreckage now could prove perilous as it lies right in the heart of the Tuareg uprising and Islamist activity that has brought chaos to northern Mali.
The town of Kidal is a key stronghold of the Tuaregs in Mali and the centre of a recent upsurge in fighting between government forces and the separatist MNLA.
In May, the convoy of Prime Minister Moussa Mara came under attack during a visit to the town, triggering fierce clashes in which 50 troops died and leading the government to declare itself once again “at war” with the MNLA. 

al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is also active in the area, as are other Islamist groups.
Two French Mirage 2000 fighter jets based in West Africa were scrambled on Thursday to try to locate the airliner along its probable route. 

 
An arrival information screen shows the delayed Air Algerie flight 5017 (top) at the Houari Boumediene airport near Algiers, Algeria (AP)
 
“The searches are focusing at this stage on a vast strip of Malian territory around the region of Gao,” in the restive north of the west African nation, Mr Fabius said before the Malian President had spoken.
French troops are among those continuing to fight Islamist rebels in the area after a major French-led offensive to drive them out last year. 

A senior French official said the al-Qaeda-backed Islamists were unlikely to have access to missiles with sufficient range to shoot down a plane flying at cruising altitude.
However, the US Federal Aviation Administration explicitly warns civil aircraft to avoid flying over Mali because of insurgent activity. 

Its Notice to Airmen – or NOTAM warns: “There is a risk to the safety of US civil flights operating into, out of, within or over Mali from small-arms, rocket propelled grenades, rockets and mortars, and anti-aircraft fire, to include shoulder-fired, man portable air defence systems.”
Some experts doubted weather could have caused a crash, pointing out that even a direct lightning strike very rarely causes any damage. 

Jean Serrat, a former airline pilot, told i-Tele this was “not credible” and that changing course to “avoid a mass of clouds happens regularly in this type of flight and poses not particular problem”.
Whatever the causes, if confirmed, the crash is the latest in a raft of tragedies to hit the air industry.

The plane is operated by Air Algerie but chartered from Spanish airline Swiftair.
The airline, according to Aviation Safety Network, has only had four accidents since it was founded in 1986. 

Patrick Gandil, director general of France’s civili aviation authority, said the plane had been inspected “two or three days ago” during a stopover in Marseille. “We found almost nothing wrong, it was in a really good state,” he said.

 

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