PARIS/OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) - Poor weather was the most likely cause of the crash of an Air Algerie flight in the West African state of Mali that killed 118 people on board, French officials said on Friday.
Investigators at the scene of the crash in northern Mali concluded the airliner broke apart when it hit the ground, the officials said, suggesting this meant it was unlikely to have been the victim of an attack.
"French soldiers who are on the ground have started the first investigations. Sadly, there are no survivors," French President Francois Hollande told reporters.
A column of 100 soldiers and 30 vehicles from the French force stationed in the region arrived early on Friday morning to secure the crash site near the northern Mali town of Gossi and to recover bodies, a Defence Ministry official said.
Hollande said one of the black box flight recorders had already been recovered and would be analysed quickly.
"The plane's debris is concentrated in a small area, but it is too early to draw conclusions," Hollande said of the wreckage of the plane carrying at least 51 French nationals that crashed near the border with Burkina Faso, from where it had taken off.
"There are theories, especially the weather, but I'm not excluding any theory."
The death toll was revised to 118 from 116 after a final passenger manifest was issued.
"They have to do everything to reassemble the bodies and bring them home so that we can mourn properly," said Alidou Ouedraogo, whose daughter was among the 27 citizens of Burkina Faso killed in the crash.
Highlighting the impact of the crash, television footage issued by Burkinabe officials showed hundreds of small pieces of debris scattered around flat scrub land in pools of muddy water with little visible sign of an intact aircraft.
Burkina Faso Prime Minister Luc Adolphe Tiao told a news conference in Ouagadougou that the plane had been scattered into small fragments: "We're not even sure that we can piece together the bodies they have been so badly destroyed," he said.
Aviation officials lost contact of flight AH5017 at around 0155 GMT on Thursday, less than an hour after taking off for Algeria, following a request by the pilot to change course due to bad weather.
"The aircraft was destroyed at the moment it crashed," French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told RTL radio.
Another plane crash is likely to add to nerves over flying a week after a Malaysia Airlines plane was downed over Ukraine, and after a TransAsia Airways plane crashed off Taiwan during a thunderstorm on Wednesday.
International airlines also temporarily cancelled flights into Tel Aviv this week, citing security concerns amid the instability in Gaza.
Air France, which has several flights using the same path as the Air Algerie flight, said it would avoid flying over the site of the crashed plane as a "precautionary measure."
Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier said the strong smell of aircraft fuel at the crash site and the fact that the debris was scattered over a relatively small area also suggested the cause of the crash was linked to weather, a technical problem or a cumulation of such factors.
"We exclude - and have done so from the start - any ground strike," Cuvillier told France 2 television.
Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and his Burkinabe counterpart Blaise Compaore were due to visit the crash site later on Friday.
France deployed troops to Mali last year to halt an al Qaeda-backed insurgency and has about 1,600 soldiers based in Mali predominantly in the northern city of Gao.
The MINUSMA UN peacekeeping force in Mali, which is about 8,000-strong, said it was also sending civilian and military assistance to the site.
Burkina Faso authorities said the passenger list also included Burkinabes, Lebanese, Algerians, Canadians, Germans, Luxembourgians, a Cameroonian, a Belgian, an Egyptian, a Ukranian, a Swiss, a Nigerian and a Malian.
Spanish private airline company Swiftair, which owned the plane, said the six crew were Spanish.