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

VALLETTA: 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 five-month-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