EthIopian plane crashes

BEIRUT - An Ethiopian airliner carrying 90 people exploded in a ball of flame and plunged into the sea off Lebanon just after takeoff in stormy weather early yesterday, officials and witnesses said.

BEIRUT - An Ethiopian airliner carrying 90 people exploded in a ball of flame and plunged into the sea off Lebanon just after takeoff in stormy weather early yesterday, officials and witnesses said.

A massive search-and-rescue operation involving helicopters and ships was hastily scrambled as Lebanese president Michel Sleiman ruled out foul play and grim-faced officials played down hopes of any survivors.

A Lebanese security official said that by noon 21 bodies had been pulled from the sea, including that of a child. One rescue official said that the bodies recovered were dismembered.

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. 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 gas station near the site of the crash said he heard an explosion and saw "a huge ball of fire" as the plane crashed.

Lebanese 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 off the coastal town of Naameh.

"The control tower was assisting the pilot of the plane on takeoff and suddenly lost contact for no known reason," Aridi said.

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. Lebanese 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.

Officials listed 83 passengers and seven crew members as having been on board the flight. - Sapa-AFP

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