Ethiopian plane crashes 'in ball of fire' off Beirut

A national day of mourning is declared in Lebanon after an Ethiopian Airlines plane crashes into the sea with 90 passengers and crew onboard.

An Ethiopian airliner carrying 90 people exploded in a ball of flames and plunged into the sea off Lebanon just after takeoff in stormy weather early today, officials and witnesses said. A massive international search and rescue operation involving helicopters and ships was hastily scrambled as the Lebanese president Michel Sleiman ruled out foul play and grim-faced officials played down hopes of any survivors. At least 23 bodies have been recovered from the sea, including that of a child. A national day of mourning was declared as parliament cancelled a scheduled legislative session and schools shut down early.

Debris from the Boeing 737 as well as luggage and personal belongings had started washing up on the Lebanese shoreline, officials and witnesses said. A defence ministry official said the plane exploded into four pieces before crashing shortly after takeoff at 2.30am. Investigators were trying to determine whether lightning had hit the jet. Witnesses reported seeing flames as the plane plunged into the sea. One employee of a petrol station near the site of the crash said he heard an explosion and saw "a huge ball of fire" as the plane crashed. Another witness said: "It was like the whole sea lit up."

The transport minister Ghazi Aridi said Ethiopian Airlines Flight 409 lost contact with the airport control tower shortly after takeoff and crashed into the Mediterranean sea 2.5 nautical miles off the coastal town of Naameh, south of the airport. "The control tower was assisting the pilot of the plane on takeoff and suddenly lost contact for no known reason," Mr Aridi told reporters. An investigative committee has also been formed to determine the cause of the crash and Mr Aridi said he had contacted nearby countries to assist in the search and rescue effort. The Lebanese army, navy as well as the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon and aircraft from France, Britain and the United States were assisting in the rescue.

Families of the passengers, some of them weeping uncontrollably, huddled at the VIP lounge of Beirut International Airport to await news of their loved ones. The prime minister Saad Hariri, parliament speaker Nabih Berri as well as a number of ministers and deputies were at the airport to comfort the families. One woman was sobbing and screaming, "Why, why?" as others fainted and had to be carried away by Red Cross volunteers. "I know they won't find him," wailed one woman, referring to her husband who was on board the flight. "We are working with all the power we have to try and find missing people from this tragedy," Mr Hariri told reporters. "We are working to find the black box that will tell us what really happened on the plane."

President Sleiman said authorities had ruled out terrorism or sabotage as the cause of the crash. "Up until now we have ruled out foul play," he said. "This is a painful tragic event. We are sparing no efforts in trying to find survivors. Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to the families of those on board." The Ethiopian News Agency in Addis Ababa said Ethiopian Airlines has sent a team to Beirut to investigate the crash. Lebanon has been lashed by heavy rains and storms in the past two days that have caused flooding and damage in some parts of the country. Officials listed 83 passengers and seven crew members as having been on board the flight.

The passengers include 54 Lebanese, 22 Ethiopians, one French woman, one British national and seven crew members. Among the Lebanese were two children and three dual nationals. Thousands of Ethiopians are employed as domestic workers in Lebanon and Ethiopian Airlines operates a regular flight between Addis Ababa and Beirut. Many Lebanese, especially from the south of the country, work in Africa and Addis Ababa is a transit point. * Agencies