BY HAMID OULD AHMED
ALGIERS (Reuters) - An Air Algerie flight with 110 passengers onboard, nearly half of them French citizens, crashed on Thursday after the jet disappeared over northern Mali en route from Burkina Faso to Algiers, an Algerian official said.
There were few clear indications of what might have happened to flight AH5017, or whether there were casualties, but Burkina Faso's transport minister said the crew asked to adjust their route at 9.38 p.m. EDT because of a storm in the area.
"I can confirm that it has crashed," the Algerian official told Reuters, declining to be identified or give any details about what had happened to the aircraft on its way north.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the Air Algerie flight was still missing, but had probably crashed. "Despite intensive search efforts no trace of the aircraft has yet been found," Fabius told journalists in Paris. "The plane probably crashed."
French President Francois Hollande canceled a planned visit to overseas territories and said all military means on the ground would be used to locate the aircraft.
Two French Mirage warplanes have been scouring the vast desert area around the northern Malian city of Gao for the aircraft, which had 51 French nationals on board.
"The search will take as long as needed," Hollande told reporters. "Everything must be done to find this plane. We cannot identify the causes of what happened," he said.
Niger security sources said planes were flying over the border region with Mali to search for the flight.
Two Mali-based diplomats said in addition to the area around Gao, where the plane is believed to have last been in contact with authorities, searcher were also scouring the rugged region around Aguelhoc toward the Algerian borders.
An aid worker in Mali who asked not to be named said his organization had received several calls from residents based in the villages of Tessalit and Tinzawaten in the northeastern region of Kidal after hearing a loud explosion.
It was not immediately clear if this was linked to the crash.
But searching in northern Mali will be complex task.
The area where the flight is suspected to have crashed is a vast, sparsely inhabited region of scrubland and desert dunes stretching to the foothills of the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains.
It is a stronghold of Tuareg separatist rebels, who rose up against the government in early 2012, triggering an Islamist revolt that briefly seized control of northern Mali.
Security sources said the French military was leading the search in the difficult terrain. The Malian government, which is holding talks with the separatists in neighboring Algeria, has only a weak presence in the region and relies on French and U.N. peacekeepers for aircraft and logistical support.
Whatever the cause, another plane crash is likely to add to nerves over flying after a Malaysia Airlines plane was downed over Ukraine last week, a TransAsia Airways crashed off Taiwan during a thunderstorm on Wednesday and airlines temporarily canceled flights into Tel Aviv due to the conflict in Gaza.
Algeria's state news agency APS said authorities lost contact with flight an hour after it took off from Burkina Faso, but other officials gave differing accounts of the times of contact, adding to confusion about the plane's fate.
Swiftair, the private Spanish company that owns the plane, confirmed it had lost contact with the MD-83 operated by Air Algerie, which it said was carrying 110 passengers and six crew.
It said it took off from Burkina Faso at 9.17 p.m. EDT and was due to land at 1.10 a.m. EDT but never reached its destination.
An Algerian aviation official said the last contact Algerian authorities had with the missing Air Algerie aircraft was at 9.55 p.m. EDT when it was flying over Gao, Mali.
Burkina Faso officials said the flight asked the control center in Niamey, Niger, to change route at 9.38 p.m. EDT because of a storm in the Sahara.
An Air Algerie representative in Burkina Faso, Kara Terki, told a news conference that all the passengers on the plane were in transit, either for Europe, the Middle East or Canada.
Burkina Faso authorities said the passenger list comprised 27 Burkinabe, 51 French, eight Lebanese, six Algerians, two from Luxembourg, five Canadians, four Germans, one Cameroonian, one Belgian, one Egyptian, one Ukranian, one Swiss, one Nigerian and one Malian.
The Lebanese Foreign Ministry said its embassy in Abidjan estimated the number of Lebanese citizens on the flight was at least 20. Some of these may have dual nationality.
A spokeswoman for SEPLA, Spain's pilots union, said the six crew were from Spain. She could not give any further details.
The MD-83 is part of the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 family of twin-engined jets that entered service in 1980. A total of 265 of the MD-83 model were delivered before McDonnell Douglas, by then part of Boeing (BA.N), halted production in 1999.
"Boeing is aware of the report. We are awaiting additional information," a spokesman for the U.S. planemaker said.
According to the Ascend Fleets database held by British-based Flightglobal, there are 187 MD-83s still in operation, of which 80 percent are being flown in the United States.
The aircraft's two engines are made by Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies (UTX.N).
Swiftair has a relatively clean safety record, with five accidents since 1977, two of which caused a total of eight deaths, according to the Washington-based Flight Safety Foundation.
Air Algerie's last major accident was in 2003 when one of its planes crashed shortly after take-off from the southern city of Tamanrasset, killing 102 people. In February this year, 77 people died when an Algerian military transport plane crashed into a mountain in eastern Algeria.
(Additional reporting by Patrick Markey, Daniel Flynn, David Lewis, Mathieu Bonkoungou,Emma Farge, Julien Toyer, Tracy Rucinski, Laila Bassam, Marine Pennetier, John Irishand Tim Hepher; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Alison Williams)