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Plane carrying 90 people crashes off Lebanon

Twenty-five bodies have been recovered. The Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed in the Mediterranean soon after taking off from Beirut in a storm. Sabotage is unlikely, says the nation's president.

January 25, 2010|By Borzou Daragahi | Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Beirut — Rescue workers have recovered the bodies of 25 of 90 people aboard an Ethiopian Airlines plane that crashed into the Mediterranean Sea early this morning amid a fierce storm, the Lebanese transportation minister said.

The Addis Ababa-bound Boeing 737-800, carrying eight crew members and 82 passengers including the American-born wife of the French ambassador to Lebanon, crashed into the sea shortly after takeoff from Beirut during harsh weather. . No survivors have been found during an ongoing search-and-rescue operation. Lebanese and Ethiopian officials discounted the possibility of terrorism or sabotage in the downing of the plane.

"As of now, an act of sabotage is unlikely," Lebanese President Michel Suleiman told reporters. "The investigation will uncover the cause."

A spokesman for the Addis Ababa government said the airline had received no prior threats.

The crew of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 409 lost contact with Lebanese air traffic control shortly after it took off during a thunderstorm at 2:35 a.m. local time, officials said.

"The control tower was assisting the pilot of the plane on takeoff and suddenly lost contact for no known reason," Lebanese transportation minister Ghazi Aridi told reporters.

According to a statement issued by the Lebanese army, eyewitnesses saw the Boeing 737-800 catch fire before plunging into the sea five miles off the coastal town of Nehmeh.

Lebanese naval and air force units along with ships attached to the longstanding U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon continue relief and rescue operations, the army said.

Marla Sanchez Pietton, wife of the recently appointed French ambassador to Lebanon, was a native of the United States, friends said. According to the airline, the passengers included 51 Lebanese, 23 Ethiopians, two Britons and individual citizens of France, Canada, Syria, Iraq, Russia, Turkey and Syria.

The airline said investigators have already been sent to the scene in search of the flight data recorders. Images broadcast on local television showed ships and a helicopter at sea, presumably near the crash site.

Agence France-Presse reported that weeping families of the passengers could be seen arriving at Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport to await news.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who toured the crash site by helicopter, declared a day of mourning in honor of those who perished in the crash.

"This is a tragedy for Lebanon, and we are working to find the missing passengers," he told reporters. "There are many theories, but the truth will be revealed by that black box."

daragahi@latimes.com

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