By Chine Labbé and Tiemoko Diallo
PARIS/BAMAKO, July 25 (Reuters) - Poor weather was the most likely cause of the crash of an Air Algerie flight in the West African state of Mali that killed all 118 people on board, French officials said on Friday.
Investigators at the scene of the crash in northern Mali concluded the McDonnell Douglas MD-83 aircraft broke apart when it smashed into the ground early on Thursday morning, the officials said, suggesting this meant it was unlikely to have been the victim of an attack.
"French soldiers who are on the ground have started the first investigations," French President Francois Hollande told reporters. "Sadly, there are no survivors."
The death toll, initially announced as 116, was revised up to 118 after a final passenger manifest was issued. An earlier count of 51 French nationals among the dead was also raised to 54 by the French Foreign Ministry to include those with dual nationality.
French, Malian and Dutch soldiers from a U.N. peacekeeping force (MINUSMA) secured the crash site, which lies about 80 km (50 miles) south of the northern Malian town of Gossi near the Burkina Faso border.
France sent troops to Mali last year to halt an al Qaeda-backed insurgency and has about 1,600 soldiers based in Mali, mostly in the northern city of Gao. French officials said there were no signs of insurgent activity in the area of the crash.
Malian authorities said they were opening an international inquiry into flight AH5017, which crashed less than an hour after it left the Burkinabe capital Ouagadougou en route for Algiers. Aviation authorities lost contact with the flight at around 0155 GMT on Thursday, shortly after the pilot requested to change course due to a storm.
Hollande said one of the black box flight recorders had been recovered and would be analyzed.
"The plane's debris is concentrated in a small area but it is too early to draw conclusions," he said. "There are theories, especially the weather, but I'm not excluding any theory."
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the crash site covered an area of about 300 meters by 300 meters and was an arduous six-hour drive from Gossi, making it difficult for forensic teams to reach it.
Fabius said bodies would first be taken to Gao before being repatriated "as quickly as possible".
Alidou Ouedraogo, whose daughter was among the 27 citizens of Burkina Faso killed in the crash, said: "They have to do everything to reassemble the bodies and bring them home so that we can mourn properly."
International police agency Interpol said it was deploying a team to help identify the victims, who came from 15 different countries.
Another plane crash is likely to add to nerves over flying a week after a Malaysia Airlines plane was downed over Ukraine, and after a TransAsia Airways plane crashed off Taiwan during a thunderstorm on Wednesday.
Television footage issued by Burkinabe officials showed hundreds of small pieces of debris scattered across flat scrubland among pools of muddy water, suggesting a heavy storm.
"We're not even sure that we can piece together the bodies they have been so badly destroyed," Burkina Faso Prime Minister Luc Adolphe Tiao told a news conference in Ouagadougou.
A local official in the town of Gossi told Reuters on Thursday that local herders, who said they saw the plane crash, told him it was in flames before it hit the ground.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the plane was destroyed only on impact and said poor weather was the likeliest cause.
Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier said the strong smell of aircraft fuel at the crash site and that small radius of the crash site suggested the cause of the crash was linked to weather, a technical problem or a cumulation of both.
"We exclude - and have done so from the start - any ground strike," Cuvillier told France 2 television.
Burkina Faso authorities said the passenger list also included Burkinabes, Lebanese, Algerians, Canadians, Germans, Luxembourgians, a Cameroonian, a Belgian, an Egyptian, a Ukrainian, a Swiss, a Nigerian and a Malian. Plane owner Swiftair said the six crew were Spanish. (Additional reporting by Mark John and John Irish in Paris, Joe Bavier in Abidjan, Mathieu Bonkoungou in Ouagadougou and Paul Day in Madrid; Writing by John Irish and Daniel Flynn; Editing by Alison Williams)
BEFORE YOU GO
25/07/2014 17:31 BST
VIDEO: Crash Site
The Associated Press released footage of the crash site of an Air Algerie plane.
25/07/2014 17:26 BST
French Officials Rule Out Ground Strike, Update Death Toll
Frédéric Cuvillier, the French junior minister for transport, said France is ruling out a ground strike as the cause of the crash of the Air Algérie flight over Mali.
French President François Hollande also spoke to the press Friday, updating the number of casualties to 118, more than had been originally reported.
25/07/2014 10:28 BST
French President: No Sign Of Survivors
France's president Francois Hollande says there are no survivors after Air Algerie flight crashed in Mali with 116 people on board— Sky News Newsdesk (@SkyNewsBreak) July 25, 2014
25/07/2014 09:29 BST
French Soldiers En Route To Guard Wreckage
A French military unit has been dispatched to secure the crash site of the Air Algerie jet that crashed in northern Mali on July 24, The Associated Press reported.
The troops aim to secure the evidence and human remains found about 30 miles from the border of Burkina Faso before extremists take over the area.
"Terrorist groups are in the zone ... We know these groups are hostile to Western interests," French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told RTL radio.
FMI: Click here.
25/07/2014 09:18 BST
Investigators: Jet Likely Crashed Due To Weather
French investigators believe bad weather may have played a role in the crash of Air Algerie Flight AH5017 on July 24, ITV reported.
"We think the aircraft crashed for reasons linked to the weather conditions, although no theory can be excluded at this point," French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told RTL radio.
For more, click here.
25/07/2014 02:39 BST
France: Plane Wreckage Spotted In Mali
The French government claimed that the wreckage of the Air Algerie plane that went missing was spotted in Mali's Gossi region, echoing similar reports made.
-- Andrew Hart
24/07/2014 23:14 BST
Malian State TV Reports Wreckage Found In Mali
Reuters reports that Malian State TV has said that the wreckage of the Air Algerie flight was found close to Gossi in Mali.
24/07/2014 23:11 BST
More From The AP:
OUAGADOUGO, Burkina Faso (AP) — A Burkina Faso official says the wreckage of the Air Algerie plane that went missing has been found in Mali.
Gen. Gilbert Diendere says the wreckage was located about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the border of Burkina Faso near the village of Boulikessi in Mali.
Diendere is a close aide to President Blaise Compaore and head of the crisis committee set up to coordinate research for the plane that vanished Thursday in a rainstorm over northern Mali.
He says searchers found human remains and burned and scattered plane wreckage.
24/07/2014 23:05 BST
AP: Wreckage Found
BREAKING: Burkina Faso official says wreckage, remains from missing Air Algerie flight found in Mali.— The Associated Press (@AP) July 24, 2014
24/07/2014 22:55 BST
Swiftair, the company that owns the plane that went missing over Ukraine, says the wreckage has not been located yet.
Swiftair: Air Algerie plane not located; earlier, Burkina Faso airport official said wreckage found in Mali; more: http://t.co/r1QNTC8bJJ— Breaking News (@BreakingNews) July 24, 2014