"I can only say now that 15 of our defence personnel were feared killed in the crash," a military spokesman said.
 
He said there were 14 officers and one trooper on the plane.

They were deployed in Sierra Leone on a United Nations peacekeeping mission and were going on holiday.

Most of those killed in the Christmas Day crash were Lebanese expatriates heading home for the holidays.

Meanwhile, experts say the crash at Cotonou in west Africa of the Boeing 727 passenger plane belonging to a Guinea airline, piloted by a Libyan crew and without a proper flying licence, highlights the problems of flying in Africa. 

The plane, owned by Union des Transports Africains (UTA), botched its take off and skidded down the runway, smashing into a building before tumbling into the Gulf of Guinea.

No safety check

"In these countries there is no structure for working practices or for maintaining checks on operations," said Francois Grangier, a French accident investigation specialist.

"They don't have the idea of airports as places sealed off, closed and given over totally to aeronautics," said Grangier, an Air France pilot.

"Physical conditions are very tough for planes... Sometimes you're landing on territory that destroys tyres, storms can be violent, corrosion is a major factor"

Francois Grangier
French accident investigation specialist

"Neither is there any framework for radio communication, i.e. for navigation means," he said: "And there is no administration for this almost non-existent structure, only a semblance of organisation that exists solely on paper."

"Physical conditions are very tough for planes," Grangier said: "Sometimes you're landing on territory that destroys tyres, storms can be violent, corrosion is a major factor."

"But these African companies have an extremely unstable financial basis and they only want to make money, not to spend it, so it's tempting to get a hold of any old plane that can be exploited cheaply."
 
Qualifications problem

Pilot qualifications are yet another problem.

"The pilots are of all different nationalities because they can't find any other work," he said.

"African states don't have any pilots' schools or proper crew training facilities, so these pilots have to be trained abroad."

Anxious Lebanese watch TV news
of the crash

Thus African states end up giving the equivalent of licences or work permits to pilots with licences acquired in foreign countries, "something which a European state such as France would never tolerate," Grangier noted.

Maxime Coffin, head of training and technical surveillance at France's civil aviation authority DGAC, identified problems such as obsolete fleets, pilots willing to work to lower standards, and problems of aircraft maintenance.
 
But Coffin insisted that flying is still the safest way to travel through Africa and denied some planes were just flying rustbuckets.

He said the norms of the International Civil Aviation Authority were more precise and kept under better surveillance than those of the International Maritime Organisation.

Unlike ships, he noted, planes cannot fly under flags of convenience.