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Mon 25 Jan 2010 08:44 AM

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Ethiopian Airlines plane crashes after Beirut take off

UPDATE 2: Aircraft with 90 people on board disappears from radar, crashes into sea.

Ethiopian Airlines plane crashes after Beirut take off
CRASH TRAGEDY: The Boeing plane crashed shortly after taking off from Beirut. (Getty Images)

An Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 with 90 people on board crashed into the Mediterranean Sea off Beirut after departing the Lebanese capital in stormy weather early on Monday morning.

Twenty-one bodies have been recovered and no survivors have been found, Lebanese army Brigadier Saleh Haj Suleiman said in a phone interview.

Search efforts are ongoing about 8 kilometres (5 miles) off the coast, with local military personnel being assisted by United Nations, French and British forces, he said.

“Weather conditions are very harsh,” Suleiman said. “We hope, God willing, to find some survivors.” The passengers on flight ET409 included 51 Lebanese and 23 Ethiopians, the carrier said on its Web site. The eight crew members were all Ethiopian.

The plane left Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport for Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, at 2:35am and lost contact with air traffic control shortly afterward.

Flames were seen coming from the aircraft before the crash near Na’ameh town, south of Beirut, according to the state-run Lebanese National News Agency. Lebanon has been lashed with heavy rains and high winds for much of the past two days.

“It was manageable weather, otherwise the crew wouldn’t have taken off,” Chief Executive Officer Girma Wake told reporters at a briefing in Addis Ababa. “On behalf of Ethiopian Airlines and myself I am sorry that this happened.”

Terrorism is unlikely to have been the cause of the crash, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman said at a press conference in Beirut. Saad Hariri, the country’s prime minister, declared Monday a day of mourning for the victims of the event.

The crashed 737-800 plane was built in 2002 and leased from CIT Group Inc’s aerospace unit in September, Girma said. Boeing is working with the US National Transportation Safety Board to assist Lebanese authorities with the investigation, spokeswoman Sandy Angers said in an e-mailed reply to questions.

Addis Ababa-based Ethiopian Airlines, which is state owned, said it had sent investigators to the scene of the crash.

The plane was also carrying two Britons and one person each from Turkey, France, Russia, Canada, Syria and Iraq, the airline said. The Lebanese National News Agency put the number of Lebanese citizens at 54, saying that some held dual citizenship.

The wife of the French ambassador to Lebanon was among those on the plane, said Anne-Charlotte Dommartin, a spokeswoman for the French embassy in Beirut. The flight was slightly delayed, having been due to take off at 2:10am.

At Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, people have been told to wait for further information on possible survivors, said Tedros Abdissa, whose 35-year-old cousin Tegist Shokur was on the flight.

“She was a domestic servant and her employer beat her up so she chose to leave,” he said in an interview at the airport.

Ethiopian Airlines operates a fleet of 37 planes, most of them Boeing aircraft, according to its website. It also has orders outstanding for planes including 10 787 Dreamliners, 12 Airbus SAS A350s and 5 Boeing 777s, according to the site. The airline and Boeing announced a deal for 10 737s on Jan. 22.

The carrier hasn’t suffered a fatal crash since November 1996, when 125 people died during the hijacking of a Boeing 767 en route to Nairobi, according to the Flight Safety Foundation. The plane ditched off the Comoros islands as it ran short of fuel after the hijackers sought to divert it to Australia.

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