French soldiers recovered a black box from the Air Algerie wreckage site in a desolate region of restive northern Mali on Friday, officials said. Terrorism hasn't been ruled out as a cause, although officials say the most likely reason for the catastrophe that killed all 118 people onboard is bad weather.
More than 200 troops are guarding the site before French accident and criminal investigators arrive on Saturday, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said.
The debris field is in a concentrated area in the Gossi region of the northwestern African country near the border with Burkina Faso "in a zone of savannah and sand with very difficult access, especially in this rainy season," Fabius said at a news conference in Paris with the defense and transport ministers.
French government officials, including President Francois Hollande and Fabius, revised the death toll to 118, without explaining the reason for the change. They also raised the number of French killed to 54 from 51. Air Algerie and private Spanish airline Swiftair, which was operating Flight 5017, said Thursday there were 116 people onboard.
"We think the plane went down due to weather conditions, but no hypothesis can be excluded as long as we don't have the results of an investigation," Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told RTL radio hours before the news conference with three other government ministers.
The pilots of the MD-83, which was traveling from Burkina Faso to Algeria, had 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 Thursday.
Meanwhile, the first images of the Air Algerie crash site in Mali emerged on Friday, showing a stark terrain littered with bits of a plane that appears to have been pulverised on impact.
The video, aired on France 2 television, was filmed by soldiers from Burkina Faso from where flight AH5017 took off early Thursday morning before disappearing from radar screens.
Watch full video of the crash site here
The grainy footage shows bits of the fuselage scattered over a large, sandy-looking terrain of dry shrubs, which is blackened in some areas.
Such was the violence of the apparent impact, that the debris seen on the video was barely recognisable as parts of an aircraft. A soldier is seen taking photos of the remains of the wreck.
Hollande announced Friday that there were no survivors in the crash of the MD-83 aircraft, owned by Spanish company Swiftair and leased by Algeria's flagship carrier, which disappeared from radar less than an hour after it took off early Thursday from Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou, for Algiers. The plane had requested permission to change course due to bad weather.
The MD-83 airplane that crashed was leased from Spanish company Swiftair. (Reuters file photo)
Speaking after a crisis meeting, Hollande also announced that one of the aircraft's two black boxes has been found in the wreckage, in the Gossi region near the border with Burkina Faso. It is being taken to the northern Mali city of Gao.
A French Reaper drone based in Niger spotted the wreckage, French transport minister Frederic Cuvillier told France-Info radio on Friday. Two helicopter teams also overflew, noting that the wreckage was in a concentrated area. A column of soldiers in some 30 vehicles were dispatched to the site, he said.
A statement early on Friday from the Hollande's office said the aircraft had been clearly identified "despite its state of disintegration."
Quick discovery of the wreckage is "decisive" in piecing together what happened, the transport minister said, describing the aircraft as "disintegrated" and debris "in an apparently small area."
The pilots had 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 Thursday.
French forces intervened in northern Mali in January 2013 to rout Islamist extremists controlling the region. A French soldier was killed earlier this month near the major town of Gao, where French troops remain. Separatist Touaregs also have been fighting each other.
Nearly half the 110 passengers aboard the plane were French, and France is deeply shaken by the drama. The president promised to mobilise all French military and civilian means in the region and call on partners to help.
The French gave the location of the crash site as in the Gossi region of Mali, on the border with Burkina Faso.
"We sent men, with the agreement of the Mali government, to the site, and they found the wreckage of the plane with the help of the inhabitants of the area," said Gen. Gilbert Diendere, a close aide to Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore and head of the crisis committee set up to investigate the flight.
The crash was the third airline disaster within a week.Watch: Crashed Air Algerie plane found in Mali
Last week, a Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down over war-torn eastern Ukraine; the US has blamed it on separatists firing a surface-to-air missile. On Wednesday, a Taiwanese plane crashed during a storm, killing 48 people.
French forces had joined the search for the Air Algerie flight, alongside Algeria and other neighboring countries plus the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA. Algerian aircraft also participated in the hunt.
Swiftair, a private Spanish airline, said the plane was carrying 110 passengers and six crew, and left Burkina Faso for Algiers at 0117 GMT on Thursday.
The passengers were 51 French, 27 Burkina Faso nationals, eight Lebanese, six Algerians, five Canadians, four Germans, two Luxembourg nationals, one Swiss, one Belgian, one Egyptian, one Ukrainian, one Nigerian, one Cameroonian and one Malian, Ouedraogo said. The six crew members were Spanish, according to the Spanish pilots' union.
(With inputs from AP and AFP)