Teams converge on remote site to probe plane crash

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Teams converge on remote site to probe plane crash
GAO, MALI - JULY 25 : The image provided on July 25,2014 by the French Defence communication and audiovisual production (ECPAD) show the site of the plane crash in Mali on July 24, 2014. The Flight AH 5017 was carrying 116 passengers and six crew members on board. (Photo by Pool/ECPAD/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A picture taken on July 24, 2014, shows the 'delayed' status of flight AH 5017 from Ouagadougou to Algiers on the departure/arrival time flight board at the Houari-Boumediene International Airport. An Air Algerie plane with around 120 people on board including French and Spanish nationals went missing during a flight from Burkina Faso to Algiers, company sources and officials said. AFP PHOTO/FAROUK BATICHE (Photo credit should read FAROUK BATICHE/AFP/Getty Images)
A police officer stands on July 24, 2014 at the entrance of a crisis cell at the Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airport in Roissy-en-France, Paris' northern suburb, after an Air Algerie plane carrying 50 French nationals went missing after taking off from Burkina Faso for Algiers. France's civil aviation body said crisis cells had been set up at the airports of Paris and Marseille. An Air Algerie source said there were about 110 people on board. AFP PHOTO / KENZO TRIBOUILLARD (Photo credit should read KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on July 24, 2014 shows the entrance of Houari-Boumediene International Airport in Algiers. An Air Algerie plane with around 120 people on board including French and Spanish nationals went missing during a flight from Burkina Faso to Algiers, company sources and officials said. AFP PHOTO/FAROUK BATICHE (Photo credit should read FAROUK BATICHE/AFP/Getty Images)
A photo taken on July 24, 2014 shows an Air Algerie airlines office in Paris. Many French nationals are thought to be on board an Air Algerie jet that went missing after taking off from Burkina Faso for Algiers, French Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier said on July 24. A source in Mali said that contact with the McDonnell Douglas MD-83 was lost over Gao in north Mali, a region that was seized by jihadists groups for several months in 2012 and that remains very unstable despite the Islamists being driven out in a French-led offensive. AFP PHOTO / STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN (Photo credit should read STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on July 24, 2014 shows an ad for Air Algerie call center at the Houari-Boumediene International Airport in Algiers. An Air Algerie plane with around 120 people on board including French and Spanish nationals went missing during a flight from Burkina Faso to Algiers, company sources and officials said. AFP PHOTO/FAROUK BATICHE (Photo credit should read FAROUK BATICHE/AFP/Getty Images)
A photo taken on July 24, 2014 shows the window of an Air Algerie airlines office in Paris. Many French nationals are thought to be on board an Air Algerie jet that went missing after taking off from Burkina Faso for Algiers, French Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier said on July 24. A source in Mali said that contact with the McDonnell Douglas MD-83 was lost over Gao in north Mali, a region that was seized by jihadists groups for several months in 2012 and that remains very unstable despite the Islamists being driven out in a French-led offensive. AFP PHOTO / STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN (Photo credit should read STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images)
GAO, MALI - JULY 25 : The image provided on July 25,2014 by the French Defence communication and audiovisual production (ECPAD) show the site of the plane crash in Mali on July 24, 2014. The Flight AH 5017 was carrying 116 passengers and six crew members on board. (Photo by Pool/ECPAD/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
GAO, MALI - JULY 25 : The image provided on July 25,2014 by the French Defence communication and audiovisual production (ECPAD) show the site of the plane crash in Mali on July 24, 2014. The Flight AH 5017 was carrying 116 passengers and six crew members on board. (Photo by Pool/ECPAD/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
GAO, MALI - JULY 25 : The image provided on July 25,2014 by the French Defence communication and audiovisual production (ECPAD) show the site of the plane crash in Mali on July 24, 2014. The Flight AH 5017 was carrying 116 passengers and six crew members on board. (Photo by Pool/ECPAD/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
GAO, MALI - JULY 25 : The image provided on July 25,2014 by the French Defence communication and audiovisual production (ECPAD) show the site of the plane crash in Mali on July 24, 2014. The Flight AH 5017 was carrying 116 passengers and six crew members on board. (Photo by Pool/ECPAD/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
GAO, MALI - JULY 25 : The image provided on July 25,2014 by the French Defence communication and audiovisual production (ECPAD) show the site of the plane crash in Mali on July 24, 2014. The Flight AH 5017 was carrying 116 passengers and six crew members on board. (Photo by Pool/ECPAD/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Investigators from the French Air Transport Gendarmerie and the French Criminal Analysis Unit (Institut de recherche criminelle de la gendarmerie nationale, IRCGN) gather around their gear on July 25, 2014 at Velizy-Villacoublay's military airport, west of Paris, before leaving for the crash site of Air Algerie flight AH5017 in Mali's Gossi region, west of Gao. France announced today that all people on board the Air Algerie passenger plane died in the tragedy, including several families that were wiped out. The occupants included 54 French citizens, some of them dual nationals, as well as people from Burkina Faso, Lebanon, Algeria, Spain, Canada, Germany and Luxembourg. The cause of the crash has not yet been determined, but it was being increasingly blamed on bad weather which had forced the pilots to divert course. AFP PHOTO / FRANCOIS GUILLOT (Photo credit should read FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images)
General Gilbert Diendere, the Chief of the Military Staff of the Burkinabe President, in charge of the crisis centre, looks on during a press conference in Ouagadougou, on July 25, 2014, after a visit on the crash site of the Air Algerie plane, which crashed over Mali on July 24 with more than 100 people on board. The wreckage of the McDonnell Douglas MD-83 plane, which was flying from Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso to the Algerian capital Algiers, was located 50 kilometres (31 miles) north of the Burkina Faso border in Mali's Gossi region. AFP PHOTO/ SIA KAMBOU (Photo credit should read SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images)
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve arrives on July 26, 2014 at the Elysee palace in Paris for a crisis meeting with the French President and other ministers about the Air Algerie jetliner that crashed in Mali. All passengers and crew on board an Air Algerie jetliner that crashed in Mali died in the tragedy, which completely wiped out several families, France boring the brunt of the disaster, with some 54 French citizens among the overall death toll of between 116 and 118, according to unexplained conflicting figures given by the carrier and French authorities. AFP PHOTO / FRANCOIS GUILLOT (Photo credit should read FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images)
Investigators from the French Air Transport Gendarmerie and the French Criminal Analysis Unit (Institut de recherche criminelle de la gendarmerie nationale, IRCGN) gather on July 25, 2014 at Velizy-Villacoublay's military airport, west of Paris, before leaving for the crash site of Air Algerie flight AH5017 in Mali's Gossi region, west of Gao. France announced today that all people on board the Air Algerie passenger plane died in the tragedy, including several families that were wiped out. The occupants included 54 French citizens, some of them dual nationals, as well as people from Burkina Faso, Lebanon, Algeria, Spain, Canada, Germany and Luxembourg. The cause of the crash has not yet been determined, but it was being increasingly blamed on bad weather which had forced the pilots to divert course. AFP PHOTO / FRANCOIS GUILLOT (Photo credit should read FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images)
Investigators from the French Air Transport Gendarmerie and the French Criminal Analysis Unit (Institut de recherche criminelle de la gendarmerie nationale, IRCGN) wait on July 25, 2014 at Velizy-Villacoublay's military airport, west of Paris, before leaving for the crash site of Air Algerie flight AH5017 in Mali's Gossi region, west of Gao. France announced today that all people on board the Air Algerie passenger plane died in the tragedy, including several families that were wiped out. The occupants included 54 French citizens, some of them dual nationals, as well as people from Burkina Faso, Lebanon, Algeria, Spain, Canada, Germany and Luxembourg. The cause of the crash has not yet been determined, but it was being increasingly blamed on bad weather which had forced the pilots to divert course. AFP PHOTO / FRANCOIS GUILLOT (Photo credit should read FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images)
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By ELAINE GANLEY and SYLVIE CORBET

PARIS (AP) - Aviation experts, criminal investigators and soldiers began converging Friday on an isolated patch of restive Mali to search for clues that might explain why an Air Algerie jetliner fell from the sky in a storm and apparently disintegrated on impact.

French authorities said the catastrophe was probably the result of extreme bad weather, but they refused to exclude other possibilities, like terrorism, without a full investigation. All 118 people aboard the plane were killed.

The loss of flight 5017 wiped out whole families. Nearly half of the dead were French. The passenger list also included other Europeans, Canadians and Africans. The six crew members were Spanish.

One man pleaded with French officials not to hold back any information about the crash that killed his brother and other family members.

"Tell us. Especially give us an explanation," Amadou Ouedraogo asked on BFM-TV.

French authorities planned to meet Saturday with victims' families.

The MD-83 was flying from Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, to Algiers, Algeria, when it disappeared early Thursday just 50 minutes after takeoff - the third crash of a passenger plane in the last week.

More than 200 French, Malian and Dutch troops from the United Nations force in Mali secured the site ahead of the arrival this weekend of aviation and criminal investigators.

France has opened a manslaughter investigation because of the 54 French victims.

One of plane's two black boxes was found Friday and sent to Gao, the northern Mali city where a contingent of French troops is based.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said victims' remains would be sent to Gao for identification before being returned home.

Difficult access to the area and instability could hinder the investigation.

Gao is in the heart of a still-restive desert and mountain area in northern Mali that fell under the control of Tuareg separatists, then al-Qaida linked Islamist extremists after a 2012 military coup.

French forces intervened in the west African country in January 2013 to rout Islamist extremists controlling the region. A French soldier was killed earlier this month in the Gao region.

The debris field to the south is in a concentrated area in the Gossi region near the border with Burkina Faso. The area is "in a zone of savannah and sand with very difficult access, especially in this rainy season," Fabius said at a presentation with the defense and transport ministers.

Traveling by road from the debris field to Gossi would take six hours, he said, stressing that the field investigation could take time.

Col. Patrick Tourron of the French Gendarmerie's victim-identification unit told BFM-TV that fingerprints, DNA and teeth would provide the primary clues to each victim's identity. Surviving family members were to be asked for victims' toothbrushes and the names of their dentists, he said.

Video of the wreckage site taken by a soldier from Burkina Faso, the nation first on the scene, showed unrecognizable debris scattered over a desolate area dotted with scrubby vegetation. There were bits of twisted metal but no identifiable parts such as the fuselage or tail, or victims' bodies. An aerial view shown later on French television revealed similar devastation.

Investigators from Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria and Spain were joining the inquiry, the French foreign minister said.

It's too early to know "with absolute certitude" what caused the disaster, Fabius said, but he noted major storms in the region.

The pilot of the jet had advised controllers in Niger that he needed to change routes because of a storm, Burkina Faso Transport Minister Jean Bertin Ouedraogo said Thursday. Contact with the plane was then lost.

A French Reaper drone based in neighboring Niger spotted the wreckage after getting alerts from Burkina Faso and Malian soldiers, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters.

"There are hypotheses, notably weather-related, but we don't rule out anything because we want to know what happened," French President Francois Hollande said Friday after a crisis meeting.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve reiterated the same message: "We think the plane went down due to weather conditions." But, speaking on RTL radio, he added: "Terrorist groups are in the zone. ... We know these groups are hostile to Western interests."

The jet, owned by the Spanish airline Swiftair, had passed its annual air navigation certificate inspection in January without any problems, Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said Friday. The European Aviation Safety Agency also carried out a "ramp inspection" - or unannounced spot check - of the plane in June.

Santamaria said another ramp inspection was done in Marseille, France, on July 22 - two days before the plane went down.

Ramp inspections "are limited to on-the-spot assessments and cannot substitute for proper regulatory oversight," the EASA website says. "Ramp inspections serve as pointers, but they cannot guarantee the airworthiness of a particular aircraft."

A Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down last week over war-torn eastern Ukraine. The U.S. has blamed it on separatists firing a surface-to-air missile. On Wednesday, a Taiwanese plane crashed during a storm, killing 48 people.

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Associated Press writers Ciaran Giles in Madrid, Spain, and Brahima Ouedraogo in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, contributed to this report.

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