Page last updated at 21:28 GMT, Monday, 25 January 2010

Bad weather likely brought down Ethiopia jet - official

Search and rescue operations are continuing on rough seas

An Ethiopian Airlines plane that crashed into the sea off Beirut was probably brought down by bad weather, Lebanon's defence minister has said.

But Elias Murr said the cause of the crash could only be established after the flight recorders were recovered.

The Addis Ababa-bound flight plunged into the Mediterranean shortly after take-off from Beirut in a storm.

All 90 people on board the Boeing 737-800 are feared dead. At least 24 bodies have been pulled from the sea.

An air and sea search is continuing in the area.

'Flash in the sky'

"Bad weather was apparently the cause of the crash," Mr Murr told reporters at Beirut airport.

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

"We have ruled out foul play so far," he added.

Flight ET409 disappeared from radar screens some five minutes after take-off at about 0200 on Monday (0000 GMT), near the village of Naameh, about 3.5km (2 miles) from the coast.

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."

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, which can take up to 189 passengers. Most of those on the flight 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 Marla Pietton, the wife of the French ambassador in Beirut.

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

Debris washed up

Helicopters and naval ships are continuing to search 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.

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

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.

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.

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.

Both Ethiopia and Lebanon have declared a national day of mourning.

Fleet expanding

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

Our Nairobi 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

Beirut jet bodies pulled from sea
25 Jan 10 |  Middle East
Profile: Ethiopian Airlines
25 Jan 10 |  Africa
Air disasters timeline
24 May 10 |  Special Reports

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