French sur­veil­lance plane crashes in Malta, killing 5

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

A re­con­nais­sance plane work­ing for France’s de­fense min­istry crashed in a ball of flames at Malta’s in­ter­na­tional air­port yes­ter­day, killing all five peo­ple on board, of­fi­cials said. The plane plum­meted into the ground nose-first shortly af­ter tak­ing off for an undis­closed sur­veil­lance mis­sion from the is­land, which lies just 220 miles north of Tripoli, the cap­i­tal of con­flict-torn Libya. The Mal­tese govern­ment said in a state­ment that there was no in­di­ca­tion of an ex­plo­sion prior to the crash but did not rule out sab­o­tage.

The French de­fense min­istry said the plane had been work­ing on its be­half, car­ry­ing out “re­con­nais­sance mis­sions in the Mediter­ranean”. Three of those who died were em­ploy­ees of the de­fense min­istry, it said. The two oth­ers were pi­lots em­ployed by CAE Avi­a­tion, a pri­vate com­pany based in Lux­em­bourg which spe­cial­izes in aerial sur­veil­lance and reg­u­larly works with Euro­pean mil­i­tary. De­fense sources said “not all” of the dead had been from the French mil­i­tary but did not want to re­veal fur­ther de­tails pend­ing no­ti­fi­ca­tion of all the vic­tims’ fam­i­lies.

CAE avi­a­tion said the plane “was be­ing flown by an ex­pe­ri­enced crew with no tech­ni­cal is­sues re­ported on pre­vi­ous flights.” It added: “At this stage, no cause for the ac­ci­dent can be de­ter­mined.” The de­fense min­istry in Paris re­fused to re­lease any de­tails of the na­ture of the plane’s mis­sion amid spec­u­la­tion it could have been bound for Libya. France led the 2011 Western mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion in the north African coun­try which led to the over­throw and death of for­mer dic­ta­tor Muam­mar Gaddafi and plunged the coun­try into a state of chaos from which it has barely re­cov­ered.

Paris con­firmed in July that its spe­cial forces were op­er­at­ing in­side the con­flict-torn north African state af­ter three of its troops died in a he­li­copter crash. Malta de­scribed the plane as hav­ing been work­ing for a five­month-old French “cus­toms” op­er­a­tion. It had been due to re­turn to the air­port af­ter a flight of a few hours yes­ter­day with­out touch­ing down any­where else. The US de­fense de­part­ment said it was not aware of the French mis­sion.

Close to Libya

The twin-prop air­craft was a Fairchild Metro­liner Mark III reg­is­tered in the United States and leased to CAE avi­a­tion. It took off around 7:20 am. Shortly af­ter­wards it tilted sud­denly to the right and was seen plung­ing nose-first to­wards the ground, fi­nally ex­plod­ing into a ball of flames on a road that rings the main run­way, dam­ag­ing the perime­ter wall and fence. “Of­fi­cial in­for­ma­tion, footage and eye­wit­nesses, in­clud­ing three mem­bers of the Armed Forces of Malta at the nearby bar­racks, and two com­mer­cial air­line pi­lots, clearly in­di­cate that there was no ex­plo­sion prior to im­pact,” a govern­ment state­ment said.

Re­mains of all five vic­tims had been re­cov­ered and an in­ves­ti­ga­tion had be­gun, it added. “The flight was part of a French cus­toms sur­veil­lance op­er­a­tion which has been tak­ing place for the past five months, with the aim of trac­ing routes of il­licit traf­fick­ing of all sorts, in­clud­ing hu­man and drug traf­fick­ing amongst oth­ers,” the state­ment said. “The flight was reg­is­tered with the Malta Air Traf­fic Ser­vices as a lo­cal flight and was to re­turn to Malta within hours with­out land­ing in third coun­tries.” The ac­ci­dent re­sulted in traf­fic in and out of the air­port be­ing sus­pended for al­most four hours, with 13 in­com­ing flights di­verted to Si­cily.

But the ter­mi­nal was not evac­u­ated and only two out­go­ing flights were can­celled be­fore nor­mal ser­vice was re­sumed. Malta is on the front line of Europe’s ef­forts to con­tain the waves of mi­grants trying to reach Italy from Libya in boats op­er­ated by peo­ple smug­glers who are of­ten also in­volved in il­licit drugs and arms deal­ing. The is­land is also strate­gi­cally lo­cated for Western pow­ers seek­ing to mon­i­tor de­vel­op­ments in Libya, where a fledg­ling na­tional unity govern­ment is strug­gling to im­pose its author­ity and mil­i­tants loyal to the Is­lamic State group have es­tab­lished a foothold.— AFP

VALETTA: Foren­sics work on the site of a small plane crash at Malta In­ter­na­tional Air­port yes­ter­day. — AFP

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