By Hamid Ould Ahmed and Tiemoko Diallo
ALGIERS/BAMAKO (Reuters) - Authorities said on Thursday they located the wreckage of an Air Algerie flight after it crashed in northern Mali carrying 116 passengers and crew, nearly half of them French, en route from Burkina Faso to Algeria.
Regional aviation officials said they had lost contact with flight AH5017 at around 0155 GMT (9:55 p.m ET) on Thursday, less than an hour after takeoff, following a request by the pilot to change course due to bad weather.
Two French Mirage fighter jets and United Nations helicopters on Thursday had for hours hunted for the wreck of the McDonnell Douglas MD-83 plane in remote northern Mali, a region prey to scattered Islamist militants and Tuareg separatist fighters.
Malian state television said the wreckage of the flight was discovered between the town of Gossi and the Burkina Faso border. It said President Ibrahima Boubacar Keita would visit the site of the crash on Friday.
General Gilbert Diendere, a member of the crisis unit in Burkina Faso, said his team of investigators had already inspected the wreckage near the village of Boulikessi, 50 km (31 miles) from the frontier.
"This team has confirmed that it has seen the remains of the plane, totally burned out and scattered on the ground," Diendere told local television, adding the remains of dead bodies had also been discovered.
"Sadly, the team saw no one on site. It saw no survivors."
Communications Minister Alain Edouard Traore said the accident was the worst in Burkina Faso's aviation history. President Blaise Compaore declared two days of national mourning, starting on Friday.
Burkina Faso authorities said the passenger list included 51 French, 27 Burkinabe, eight Lebanese, six Algerians, five Canadians, four Germans, two from Luxembourg, one Cameroonian, one Belgian, one Egyptian, one Ukranian, one Swiss, one Nigerian and one Malian. The Lebanese Foreign Ministry said its embassy in Abidjan estimated the number of Lebanese citizens on the flight was at least 20, some of whom may have dual nationality.
"We don't know anything yet. We have just heard from the news that the plane went missing," said Amina Daher, whose sister-in-law Randa was traveling on the plane with her three children, and returning to Beirut to celebrate the Muslim religious festival of Eid El-Fitr with her family.
HERDERS "SAW THE PLANE FALL"
Another plane crash is likely to add to nerves over flying a week after a Malaysia Airlines plane was downed over Ukraine, and a TransAsia Airways plane crashed off Taiwan during a thunderstorm on Wednesday. International airlines also temporarily canceled flights into Tel Aviv this week, citing security concerns amid the instability in Gaza.
Swiftair, the private Spanish company that owns the plane, confirmed the MD-83 operated by Air Algerie was carrying 110 passengers and six crew. It said it took off from Burkina Faso at 0117 GMT and was due to land at 0510 GMT, but never reached its destination.
A spokeswoman for SEPLA, Spain's pilots union, said the six crew were from Spain.
A local official in Gossi said the crash had been witnessed by a group of herders near the village of Hamni-Ganda, and word was passed to authorities in Burkina Faso.
"The herders were in the bush and saw the plane fall," Louis Berthaud, a community counsellor in Gossi, told Reuters by telephone. "It must have been a storm and it was struck by lightning. They said it was on fire as it fell, before it crashed."
Asked if he suspected a terrorist attack, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said authorities believed the cause of the crash may have been bad weather, but no hypothesis had been excluded.
French President Francois Hollande had earlier canceled a planned visit to overseas territories and said France - which has some 1,700 troops stationed in Mali - would use all military means on the ground to locate the aircraft.
"We cannot identify the causes of what happened," Hollande told reporters.
Much of northern Mali lies in the hands of Tuareg separatist rebels, who rose up against the government in early 2012, triggering an Islamist revolt that briefly seized control of northern Mali. A French-led international operation in early 2013 broke the Islamists control over northern Mali.
RELATIVELY CLEAN RECORD
The MD-83 is part of the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 family of twin-engine jets that entered service in 1980. A total of 265 of the MD-83 model were delivered before McDonnell Douglas, by then part of Boeing, halted production in 1999.
"Boeing is aware of the report. We are awaiting additional information," a spokesman for the U.S. planemaker said.
According to the Ascend Fleets database held by British-based Flightglobal, there are 187 MD-83s still in operation, of which 80 percent are being flown in the United States.
The aircraft's two engines are made by Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies.
Swiftair has a relatively clean safety record, with five accidents since 1977, two of which caused a total of eight deaths, according to the Washington-based Flight Safety Foundation.
Air Algerie's last major accident was in 2003 when one of its planes crashed shortly after take-off from the southern city of Tamanrasset, killing 102 people. In February, 77 people died when an Algerian military transport plane crashed into a mountain in eastern Algeria.
(Additional reporting by Patrick Markey, Daniel Flynn, David Lewis, Mathieu Bonkoungou, Emma Farge, Joe Bavier, Julien Toyer, Tracy Rucinski, Laila Bassam, Marine Pennetier, John Irish and Tim Hepher; Writing by Patrick Markey and Daniel Flynn; Editing by Alison Williams and Sonya Hepinstall)