PARIS – French soldiers recovered a black box from the Air Algerie wreckage site in a desolate region of restive northern Mali on Friday, officials said. Terrorism hasn't been ruled out as a cause, although officials say the most likely reason for the catastrophe that killed all 118 people onboard is bad weather.
More than 200 troops are guarding the site before French accident and criminal investigators arrive Saturday in the area, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.
The debris field is in a concentrated area in the Gossi region of Mali near the border with Burkina Faso "in a zone of savannah and sand with very difficult access, especially in this rainy season," Fabius said at a news conference in Paris with the defense and transport ministers.
French government officials, including the President Francois Hollande and Fabius, increased the death toll to 118, and raising the number of French killed to 54 from 51. Air Algerie and private Spanish airline Swiftair, which was operating Flight 5017, said Thursday there were 116 people onboard.
"We think the plane went down due to weather conditions, but no hypothesis can be excluded as long as we don't have the results of an investigation," Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told RTL radio hours before the news conference with three other government ministers.
The pilots of the MD-83, which was traveling from Burkina Faso to Algeria, had sent a final message to ask Niger air control to change its route because of heavy rain, Burkina Faso Transport Minister Jean Bertin Ouedraogo said Thursday.
One of two black boxes has been found and was sent to Gao, a troubled city in northern Mali where remains will be sent for identification before being repatriated, Fabius said at Friday's news conference. The Gossi region where the accident occurred, near the Burkina Faso border, is 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of Gao.
A French contingent of troops is based in Gao, a government-controlled town. The vast deserts and mountains of northern Mali fell under control of ethnic Tuareg separatists and then al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremists after a military coup in 2012.
French forces intervened in January 2013 to rout Islamist extremists controlling the region. A French soldier was killed earlier this month near the town of Gao, where French troops remain.
The intervention scattered the extremists, but the Tuaregs have pushed back against the authority of the Bamako-based government. Meanwhile, the threat from Islamic militants hasn't disappeared, and France is giving its troops a new and larger anti-terrorist mission across the region.
French television showed images of the wreckage site taken by a soldier from Burkina Faso. The brief footage showed a desolate area with scattered debris that was unrecognizable. There were bits of twisted metal but no identifiable parts such as the fuselage or tail, or victims' bodies. Scrubby vegetation could be seen scattered in the background.
A French Reaper drone based in Niger spotted the wreckage after getting alerts from Burkina Faso and Malian soldiers, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters.
Burkina Faso soldiers were reportedly the first to reach the site. The country's prime minister, Luc Adolphe Tiao, reviewed videos of the wreckage site and said identifying the victims will be challenging.
"It will be difficult to reconstitute the bodies of the victims," Tiao said at a news conference. "The human remains are so scattered."
Nearly half of the victims were from France and the disaster has hit the country hard.
"I share the pain of families living through this terrible ordeal," Hollande said.
Many of the passengers were scheduled to head on to Europe after the plane was due to arrive in the Algerian capital from Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou.
Hollande has said that France will spare no efforts to uncover why the plane went down — the third major plane disaster around the world within a week. A Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down last week over war-torn eastern Ukraine. The U.S. has blamed it on separatists firing a surface-to-air missile. On Wednesday, a Taiwanese plane crashed during a storm, killing 48 people.
"There are hypotheses, notably weather-related, but we don't rule out anything because we want to know what happened," Hollande said. "What we know is that the debris is concentrated in a limited space, but it is too soon to draw conclusions."
Cazeneuve also said on RTL radio: "Terrorist groups are in the zone. ... We know these groups are hostile to Western interests."
The plane, owned by Swiftair and leased by Algeria's flagship carrier, disappeared from radar screens less than an hour after it took off early Thursday from Ouagadougou for Algiers.
The MD-83 had passed its annual air navigation certificate renewal inspection in January without any problems, Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said Friday. The European Aviation Safety Agency also carried out a "ramp inspection" — or unannounced spot check — of the plane in June without incident.
Santamaria also said a ramp inspection was done on the plane in Marseille, France, on July 22 — two days before the plane went down.
Ramp inspections "are limited to on-the-spot assessments and cannot substitute for proper regulatory oversight," the EASA website says. "Ramp inspections serve as pointers, but they cannot guarantee the airworthiness of a particular aircraft."