Algeria suffered its deadliest ever air catastrophe Wednesday when a military plane crashed after takeoff, killing 257 people on board, mostly army personnel and their family members, officials said.
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika declared three days of national mourning over the crash starting yesterday. The veteran leader also ordered that a special prayer be said for the victims after weekly Muslim prayers on Friday, a decree published by state press agency APS said.
The defence ministry said in a statement that 247 passengers and 10 crew were killed without mentioning any survivors. Most of those on board were army members and their families, it said.
There was no immediate word on the cause of the crash. Deputy Defence Minister General Ahmed Gaid Salah visited the site and ordered an investigation, the defence ministry said.
The Ilyushin IL-76 transport plane was bound for Tindouf in southwest Algeria near the borders with Morocco and Western Sahara. The Tindouf region is home to refugees from Western Sahara and houses the administrative offices of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic declared in 1976 by the Algiers-backed Polisario Front which seeks independence for the region.
Rabat considers Western Sahara an integral part of Morocco and proposes autonomy for the resource-rich territory.
AFP photographer at the scene saw the charred wreckage of the plane after it caught fire in a field near the Boufarik airbase, 30 kilometres (19 miles) south of Algiers. Hundreds of ambulances and dozens of fire trucks with sirens wailing rushed to the scene of the crash, in an uninhabited area where one person was injured on the ground by debris. Firefighters extinguished the blaze and security forces set up a cordon to prevent journalists and onlookers from approaching.
According to the plane manufacturer’s website, the IL-76, a four-engine plane built in the Soviet Union and then Russia, can transport between 126 and 225 passengers depending on the model and configuration. The North African country has suffered a string of military and civilian aviation disasters but Wednesday’s was Algeria’s deadliest ever plane crash and the world’s fourth costliest in human lives in 20 years.
Two Algerian military planes collided mid-flight in December 2012 during a training exercise in Tlemcen, in the far west of the country, killing the pilots of both planes. In February 2014, 77 people died when a military plane carrying army personnel and family members crashed between Tamanrasset in southern Algeria and the eastern city of Constantine.
Only one person survived after the C-130 Hercules transport aircraft came down in the mountainous Oum El Bouaghi region. The defence ministry blamed that crash on bad weather.