Ethiopian Airlines Plane Crashes in Sea off Beirut, Bodies Found

January 25, 2010

An Ethiopian Airlines plane with 90 people on board crashed into the sea shortly after taking off from Beirut in bad weather early on Monday. Four bodies were recovered as a search for survivors began.

The Boeing 737-800, heading for Addis Ababa, disappeared off the radar some five minutes after taking off at 2:37 a.m. local time (0037 GMT) during a thunder storm and heavy rain.

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman said he did not think the plane had been brought down deliberately. “As of now, a sabotage act is unlikely. The investigation will uncover the cause,” Suleiman told a news conference.

Eighty-three passengers and seven crew members were on the flight, Lebanese Transport Minister Ghazi al-Aridi told reporters at the airport where relatives of the passengers were gathering after hearing of the crash. “(The crash) site has been identified three-and-a-half km (two miles) west of the (coastal) village of Na’ameh,” he said.

Fifty-four of those on board were Lebanese, 22 were Ethiopian, and two were British. There were also Canadian, Russian, French, Iraqi and Syrian nationals.

Marla Pietton, wife of the French ambassador to Lebanon Denis Pietton, was on the plane, the French embassy said.

Witnesses said Lebanese army patrol boats and helicopters were searching a small area off Na’ameh, which lies 10 km (six miles) south of Beirut. Aridi said the authorities had requested help from U.N. peacekeepers and some neighboring countries.

A police spokeswoman in the nearby island of Cyprus said a Cypriot police helicopter had gone to the crash scene to help the search for survivors.

A spokesman for the British military stationed in Cyprus said they were on standby to provide assistance and that there were two U.N. helicopters on the scene.

According to one source, residents on the coast saw a “ball of fire” crashing off Na’ameh.

State-owned Ethiopian Airlines, which could not immediately be reached for comment, has positioned itself as a major player in international air traffic in Africa and has recently expanded its Asian network.

It has regular flights to Lebanon, catering for business clients and the hundreds of Ethiopians who work there as domestic helpers.

Last Friday the airline announced an order for 10 of Boeing’s Next-Generation 737-800s for a total price of $767 million.

(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy in Beirut and Michele Kambas in Nicosia; editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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