Ethiopian Plane Crashes off Lebanon; 90 Feared Dead
The cause of the crash was not immediately known. Lebanon has been slammed by bad weather since Sunday night, with crackling thunder, lightning and pouring rain.
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman said terrorism was not suspected.
"Sabotage is ruled out as of now," he said.
The Boeing 737-800 took off around 2:30 a.m. (7:30 p.m. EST) for the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, said Ghazi Aridi, the public works and transportation minister.
"The weather undoubtedly was very bad," Aridi told reporters at the airport. He added that the plane went down about 2 miles (3.5 kilometers) off the Lebanese coast.
The Lebanese army said in a statement the plane was "on fire shortly after takeoff."
The wife of Denis Pietton, the French ambassador to Lebanon, was on the plane, according to the French embassy.
Helicopters and naval ships were scrambled for a rescue effort as huge waves slammed into the shore and rain lashed the coast.
A Lebanese army official said 18 bodies had been recovered.
A police spokeswoman in Cyprus, which sent rescue crews to the area, said airplane debris was found.
Ethiopian Airlines' CEO Girma Wake told journalists in Addis Ababa that he had no information on the fate of those on board or about the cause of the crash. He said the aircraft had been serviced on Dec. 25 and passed inspection.
He also said the plane had been leased in September from CIT Aerospace. Calls to CIT Aerospace were not immediately returned Monday.
Relatives of the passengers began arriving at the airport in Beirut early Monday, many of them crying and hugging. Officials led them into a VIP area. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced a day of mourning and closed schools and government offices.
The plane was carrying 90 people, including 83 passengers and 7 crew. Aridi, the transportation minister, identified the passengers as 54 Lebanese, 22 Ethiopians, one Iraqi, one Syrian, one Canadian of Lebanese origin, one Russian of Lebanese origin, a French woman and two Britons of Lebanese origin.
Ethiopian Airlines reported that there were 82 passengers and eight crew; the discrepancy could not immediately be explained.
The Boeing 737 is considered one of the safest planes in airline service. The jet was first introduced in the 1960s, and today is the workhorse on many short- and medium-range routes.
Still, over the past 15 years it was involved in a series of incidents and crashes linked to a valve in the rudder assembly. This reportedly would malfunction and cause the rudder to turn independently of the pilot's commands.
The problem was considered resolved after operators of older Boeing 737s were ordered to carry out inspections and upgrades of the critical rudder control systems.
Ethiopian Airlines has long had a reputation for high-quality service compared to other African airlines, with two notable crashes in more than 20 years.
A hijacked Ethiopian Airlines jet crash-landed off the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean when it ran out of fuel in November 1996, killing 126 of the 175 people aboard. The plane had just left Addis Ababa when three hijackers stormed the cockpit and demanded to be taken to Australia.
In September 1988, an Ethiopian Airlines jet crashed shortly after taking off when it ran into a flock of birds, killing 31 of the 104 people on board.
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Slobodan Lekic in Brussels and Samson Haileyesus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia contributed to this report.