Health minister contradicts govt claims on ET-409 crash

EDITOR’S NOTE: Lebanon’s Health Minister is contradicting claims and leaks by his own government that Ethiopian flight 409 crashed because of weather and pilot error. Jawad Khalifeh said yesterday that the plane exploded.

BEIRUT (AFP) — An Ethiopian jet which crashed off Lebanon’s coast last month exploded after take-off, Lebanon’s health minister said on Tuesday in the first such official comment since the mysterious crash.

Remarks by Jawad Khalifeh could not be immediately confirmed by other officials in Beirut and came as Ethiopian Airlines said one of the plane’s black boxes has been sent to France for analysis.

“The plane exploded during flight and the cabin, as well as the bodies of those on board were dispersed into the sea, in different locations,” Khalifeh said to explain why some corpses were found dismembered.

“The first bodies which have been retrieved following the crash were intact but after that, we began to find body pieces or mutilated corpses,” he told reporters.

Transport Minister Ghazi Aridi refused to comment on the reported explosion. “I have no information about this,” he told AFP.

Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737-800 plunged into the Mediterranean before dawn on January 25, just minutes after take-off from Beirut airport during a storm.

It was bound for Addis Ababa with 83 passengers and seven crew on board. No survivors were found and searchers have been struggling to recover bodies as most victims were believed to be still strapped to their seats.

There have been conflicting reports as to whether the jet exploded while airborne or after it hit the water, and officials have said there will be no answers until the data from the black boxes is analysed.

Lebanon has ruled out sabotage, blaming the bad weather for the tragedy, and officials have said the captain was instructed by the control tower to change to a certain heading but then the aircraft took a different course.

Experts have told AFP that the stormy weather may not have been the only reason for the crash, and that the aircraft may have had engine or hydraulics problems.

Witnesses have said they saw a ball of fire as the plane plunged into the sea and a defence ministry official said on the day of the tragedy that the plane broke into four pieces before crashing in the Mediterranean.

Lebanese army divers retrieved one of the plane’s two black boxes on Sunday and Ethiopian Airlines said it has been sent to France for analysis.

“We cannot say when we’ll have news because it is a process and there is an investigation,” spokeswoman Wogayehu Terefe told AFP in Addis Ababa.

Wogayehu said more bodies had been retrieved but said they were still waiting for an exact figure. Twenty three bodies had been found by Sunday.

The probe into the mysterious crash is being carried out by a Lebanese commission with support from a French body responsible for technical investigations of air accidents.

U.S. and Ethiopian investigators are also involved.