Rescue teams search for survivors in Ethiopian plane crash (video)

Lebanese rescue teams Monday recovered 10 bodies from the wreckage of an Ethiopian airliner that plunged into the Mediterranean Sea minutes after takeoff in heavy rains and storms from the Beirut International Airport earlier in the day.

“We have so far found 10 bodies at the crash site off the coast of Naameh, 7 miles (12 kilometers) south of the Beirut airport,” an unidentified defense ministry official told a local news agency. (RTTNews)

An Ethiopian Airlines flight 409 with 90 people on board crashed into the sea shortly after taking off from Beirut in bad weather early on Monday.

Ethiopian Airlines chief executive Ato Girma Wake said a team of eight people from Derbyshire-based crisis management company Blake Emergency Services, which specialises in airline incidents, was travelling to Beirut.

Local media quoted Lebanese army officials as saying that seven survivors had been rescued.

However, according to other reports, police officers said there had been two survivors. The conflicting reports of survivors were not confirmed by the UN or government officials.

Confirmation of the loss of the flight came from the operator in Addis Ababa.

“Ethiopian flight ET-409 scheduled to operate from Beirut to Addis Ababa on January 25 lost contact with the Lebanese air controllers shortly after takeoff. The flight departed at 02.35 Lebanese time from Beirut International Airport,” the airline said in a statement.

The aircraft carried 51 Lebanese nationals, 23 Ethiopians, as well as Iraqi, Syrian, British,and French nationals, the minister said. One of the passengers is believed to be the wife of the French ambassador in Beirut.

Lebanon’s President Michel Suleiman described the incident as “painful”. Suleiman put all medical and security forces on maximum alert.

Lebanese army patrol boats and helicopters were searching a small area off Na’ameh, 10 km (six miles) south of Beirut.

The military spokesman for U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon, Colonel Diego Fulco, said two ships from its maritime task force were at the crash site and a third was on its way. Two U.N. helicopters were also at the scene, he said.

A Cypriot police helicopter and another from the British military stationed in Cyprus were also involved in the search.

According to one source, residents on the coast saw a “ball of fire” crashing off Na’ameh.

State-owned Ethiopian Airlines, which confirmed the crash, has positioned itself as a major player in international air traffic in Africa and has recently expanded its Asian network.

It has regular flights to Lebanon, catering for business clients and the hundreds of Ethiopians who work there as domestic helpers. Lebanese aviation sources said some of the passengers had been en route to Angola.

Last Friday the airline announced an order for 10 of Boeing’s Next-Generation 737-800s for a total price of $767 million.

The last major incident involving Ethiopian Airlines was in November 1996 when 125 of the 175 passengers and crew died after a hijacked Boeing 767 crashed into the sea off the Comoros Islands.

One airport official said the plane was struck by lightning before it fell into the sea.

The Boeing aircraft disappeared off the radar screens shortly after takeoff, the state-run Lebanese National News Agency reported.

Witnesses in the area said they heard a loud noise and then saw a plane on fire plunging into the water.

Rescue teams were seen gathering near the area where the plane reportedly crashed.

“The weather is not helping us at all,” a member of the rescue team said. “But we hope to find some survivors.”

Aridi said the crash site had been identified at 3.5 km west of the coastal village of Na’ameh.

The Boeing 737-800, heading for Addis Ababa, disappeared off the radar some five minutes after taking off at 2:37 a.m. (0037 GMT) during a thunder storm and heavy rain. Lebanese President Michel Suleiman said he did not think the plane had been brought down deliberately.

“As of now, a sabotage act is unlikely. The investigation will uncover the cause,” Suleiman told a news conference.

Eighty-three passengers and seven crew were on the flight, Lebanese Transport Minister Ghazi al-Aridi told reporters at the airport where relatives of the passengers gathered to wait for news of survivors.

“(The crash) site has been identified three-and-a-half km (two miles) west of the (coastal) village of Na’ameh,” he said.

Fifty-four of those on board were Lebanese, 22 were Ethiopian, two were British and there were also Canadian, Russian, French, Iraqi and Syrian nationals.

Marla Pietton, wife of the French ambassador to Lebanon Denis Pietton, was on the plane, the French embassy said. The Lebanese government has declared a day of mourning.

The U.K. Foreign Office said one British national and one with dual nationality were on board Flight ET409.

No further details about the two people would be released until next of kin had been informed, it added.

A Foreign Office spokeswoman said: “Our thoughts are with the families of all those involved in this tragedy.”

At least 21 bodies have been recovered, and there has been no news of anyone surviving the crash.

An RAF helicopter, based in Cyprus, has joined the Lebanese authorities’ search-and-rescue operation.

(Source: Reuters, AP, IANS, BBC)