Page last updated at 15:38 GMT, Monday, 25 January 2010

Ethiopian jet crash bodies pulled from sea off Beirut

Search and rescue operations are continuing on rough seas

At least 24 bodies of people killed in an Ethiopian Airlines plane crash off Beirut have been pulled from the sea.

Addis Ababa-bound Flight ET409 burst into flames and crashed into the Mediterranean shortly after take-off from Beirut airport in stormy weather.

Rescuers are continuing to search for bodies and wreckage, but officials say it is very unlikely that any of the 90 people on board will be found alive.

A Lebanese minister said "bad weather was apparently the cause of the crash".

"We have ruled out foul play so far," Defence Minister Elias Murr told reporters.

Natalia Antelava
Natalia Antelava, Beirut airport

Many relatives are crying, devastated. A woman is telling us she's refusing to believe her husband is dead, and yet hopes are fading very fast. Officials are saying it is very unlikely anyone managed to survive this crash.

Nevertheless they're still calling their efforts a rescue operation. They're still trying to look for possible survivors and also wreckage which could point to why this happened.

The weather has been really harsh. The plane took off in a storm and it's been raining ever since. The sea is rough, and rescuers are saying it's making their efforts that much more difficult.

The plane took off in a heavy rainstorm and there has been speculation that it was struck by lightning.

Some relatives of those on board have been asking why the plane was allowed to take off in such poor conditions, the BBC's Andrew North in Beirut reports.

Officials said that 83 passengers and seven crew were on board the Boeing 737-800. This model can seat 189 passengers. Most were Lebanese or Ethiopian.

The UK Foreign Office said there was one British national and one person of dual nationality.

The other passengers included citizens of Turkey, France, Russia, Canada, Syria and Iraq, Ethiopian Airlines said in a statement on its website.

Among them was the wife of the French ambassador in Beirut, Marla Pietton.

Some of the foreign passengers are reported to be of Lebanese origin.

Debris washed up

The plane disappeared from radar screens some five minutes after take-off in stormy weather at about 0200 local time, near the village of Naameh, about 3.5km (2 miles) from the coast.

Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737-800
State-owned carrier flying to 56 destinations
Operates only Boeing aircraft
First crash since 1996, when hijacked plane ditched into sea off Comoros
Good safety record, considered an exception among African airlines

Helicopters and naval ships are searching the crash site. It is still being described as a rescue operation, although officials say that in such bad weather it is unlikely anyone will be found so long after the crash.

The United Nations peacekeeping operation in Lebanon has sent three ships and two helicopters, and a British RAF helicopter is also involved.

Lebanese soldiers are also combing nearby beaches, where pieces of the plane and debris including passenger seats, a fire extinguisher and bottles of medicine have washed up.

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman said foul play was not suspected.

"As of now, a sabotage act is unlikely. The investigation will uncover the cause," he said. "The weather conditions are terrible, but rescue efforts are still under way."

One witness, Abdel Mahdi Salaneh, told the BBC he saw the plane fall into the sea in flames.

"We saw a flash in the sky," he said. "We saw a flash over the sea and it was the plane falling. The weather was really bad, it was all thunder and rain."

The BBC's Will Ross in Nairobi says the crash is likely to invite comparisons with the Kenya Airways crash in Cameroon in 2007, in which 114 people died.

Lebanese PM Saad Hariri said everything was being done to find the missing

Both incidents involved Boeing 737-800 aircraft taking off in bad weather.

Relatives of the passengers, some of them sobbing, gathered in the airport's VIP lounge.

A tearful Andree Qusayfi told the Associated Press that his brother, 35-year-old Ziadh, had left for Ethiopia to work for a computer company.

"We begged him to postpone his flight because of the storm," he said. "But he insisted on going because he had work appointments."

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, parliament speaker Nabih Berri and other officials went to comfort families.

Mr Hariri declared a day of mourning, and closed schools and government offices.

Ethiopia and Lebanon share close business ties, and thousands of Ethiopians are employed as domestic helpers in Lebanon.

Many of the Lebanese passengers are believed to have been planning to take connecting flights to West Africa.

Fleet expanding

Ethiopian Airlines operates a regular flight between Addis Ababa and Beirut.

Our correspondent says that along with South African and Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airlines is widely considered to be among sub-Saharan Africa's best operators.

And on a continent with a history of national airlines folding often due to reckless financial mismanagement, he says, Ethiopian Airlines is expanding its fleet and was the first African airline to order the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

It has also just announced the purchase of another 10 737-800s, at a cost of $750m.

Its last major crash was in 1996, when a hijacked Nairobi-Addis Ababa plane ditched into the sea off the Comoros Islands after running out of fuel. Of the 175 people on board, 123 were killed.

Map showing plane's route and location of crash

Profile: Ethiopian Airlines
25 Jan 10 |  Africa
Air disasters timeline
24 May 10 |  Special Reports

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Al Jazeera Search for Lebanon crash victims - 2 hrs ago Search on for bodies - 3 hrs ago
Times Online Crew on Ethiopian flight ET409 'ignored warning and flew into storm' - 3 hrs ago
Sky News Crash Pilot 'Failed To Follow Instructions' - 6 hrs ago Two Britons killed as plane crashes - PA - 14 hrs ago

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