A senior Hezbollah leader was reported to be among the 118 victims of an Air Algerie flight that plummeted out of the sky last week, killing all passengers on board.
The unnamed man, described in Algerian press as a Hezbollah leader posing as a Lebanese businessman, was on the plane along with 33 French army soldiers who also died in the incident, the Algerian daily Echorouk reported on Saturday.
Information about the alleged Hezbollah operative came to light after the Lebanese embassy requested information about any of its nationals who may been on flight 5017. The man was reportedly traveling between Senegal and Burkina Faso.
Speculation over what caused the crash has focused on adverse climatic conditions but French and Algerian authorities have not discounted terrorism either.
“We believe that the plane crashed for reasons related to weather, although we cannot rule out any theory for the present time,” French Interior Minister Bernard Kaznov said on Friday.
The French soldiers, including three high ranking intelligence experts, were serving in Africa and Mali, the report said.
French President Francois Hollande said Saturday he wants the remains of all passengers on the Air Algerie plane to be brought to France and the site of the catastrophe marked with a memorial to the 118 who died.
UN peacekeepers in Mali found the second black box of the Air Algerie plane at the remote disaster site in the north, and the French president said the data and voice recorders must be analyzed as quickly as possible to determine the cause of the crash early Thursday.
Nearly half of the victims — 54 — were French, and Hollande has taken a leading role in the aftermath, stressing the need to determine the cause of the crash. French authorities have also said extreme bad weather was the probable cause but weren’t ruling out anything, even terrorism. The plane went down in a restive area of Mali, where extremists roam.
“I don’t want to rule out any hypothesis,” Hollande said again Saturday.
The Air Algerie jet was flying from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, to Algiers, Algeria, when it went down in the desolate part of Mali near the border with Burkina Faso. The pilot had advised he must change routes due to a storm and then contact with the Niger control tower was lost.
Hollande met Saturday with families of victims, and ordered all French flags at half-staff for three days starting Monday. In remarks later, he said families will eventually be able to visit the disaster site “to have a link with this land where their loved ones disappeared.”
The Burkina Faso government flew three family members of those killed to the site in Mali where debris from the plane and remains of passengers are scattered, said spokesman Victorien Sawadogo.
A government helicopter on Saturday morning transported the family members — from France, Lebanon and Burkina Faso — so they could view the results of the air disaster, he said. A psychologist accompanied them and a second flight to the site was planned later Saturday, he said.
Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore was to meet with other family members Saturday afternoon, said the spokesman.
The “most painful” subject is identifying the bodies, Hollande said in a reference to the state of the disaster site. Video shows unrecognizable debris and no sign of bodies.
Once bodies have been grouped and identified, Hollande said he decided “all bodies will be brought to France. I mean all bodies of all passengers of this flight.”
He did not clarify whether this plan has been approved by families from Canada to Lebanon who lost loved ones. Nor did he clarify what would then be done with the remains.
The MD-83 plane was owned by the Spanish company Swiftair and leased to Air Algerie.
Spanish and Algerian officials flew to Burkina Faso Saturday to express their condolences.
“We send a message of condolences, sympathy, solidarity and availability to the people of Burkina Faso,” Amar Ghoule, the Algerian transport minister and special envoy of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, told journalists after meeting with Compaore.
The Spanish ambassador in Burkina Fernando Maran also expressed “the will of the Spanish government to collaborate with Burkina Faso and other countries by making available all technical and human means that they have.” All six crew members of flight AH 5017 were Spanish.