Also on Monday, President Olusegun Obasanjo declared three days of official mourning and flags flew at half staff around the country as the hunt began for the Boeing 737's flight data recorders and for clues to explain the sudden loss of Bellview Airlines' flight 210 to Abuja.

 

"We are still investigating," Aviation Minister Babalola Borisade said. "We have not found the black box. It's believed to be inside the body of the aircraft, which is buried under the ground."

 

The minister said the recorders would not be dug up until forensic scientists - including two experts who are due to arrive from the United States - had examined the wreckage and corpses scattered in trees and craters across a wide area.

 

"Accident investigators are still working, and until they come up with their findings we will not bring in Caterpillars (earth moving equipment) to excavate the body of the aircraft," he said.

 

Rescue work

 

Emergency workers continued with the gruesome task of disentangling the bodies of the passengers from the widely scattered remains of the jet, which came down in a cocoa grove in the village of Lissa shortly after taking off from Africa's biggest city.

 

"There's no chance of survivors, as you can see. Bodies in pieces and human parts are being picked up by the rescue team," said Borisade.

 

Rescue workers found body parts
scattered in the crash

The forensic teams will have to find out why an apparently airworthy aircraft, of a model in constant use by airlines across the world, should have suffered such a catastrophic failure as it flew through an electrical storm.

 

The director general of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, Fidelis Onyeriri, said the plane was 24-years old and had passed a technical inspection, which is valid for 18 months, in February.

 

Ten hours before it took off on its final journey, it had had an additional check, he added.

 

Bad record

 

Nigeria has a bad record for aviation safety and has suffered similar tragedies in the past, most recently in May 2002 when an airliner ploughed into a crowded suburb of the northern city of Kano and killed 115 people on board and scores more on the ground.

 

But Bellview, the private Nigerian-owned airline that operates Flight 210, had a good reputation for safety and was an airline of choice for many West African business travellers.

 

Nigerian authorities have offered no opinion as to what might have caused the crash. Speculation in Monday's press reports ran the gamut from a lightning or bird strike to a fire on board, a fuel shortage or a bomb attack.

 

Mid-air explosion

 

Witnesses on the ground at Lissa said the plane appeared to explode in mid-air before crashing. Debris was scattered over a wide area and the plane retained no recognisable shape. Much of the wreckage was buried in craters up to eight metres deep.

 

President Obasanjo ordered an
investigation into the crash

Body parts and torn luggage were scattered around the scene. The Red Cross and the federal emergency management agency said no one on board could have survived.

 

It was not immediately clear how many foreign nationals had been killed. The Johannesburg daily The Star reported that 31-year-old South African television producer Adele Lorenzo was on board.

 

US and British diplomats said they were checking whether any of their nationals were dead. State television coverage of the disaster showed what appeared to be a British-issued passport among the wreckage.

 

General killed

 

Also killed was General Cheik Oumar Diarra from Mali, who served as the deputy executive secretary of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a 15-nation grouping promoting political cooperation in the region.

 

Diarra's wife N'Deye Marie said she had been told by ECOWAS officials that the plane exploded in mid-air. ECOWAS' head of finance, Ghana's Emmanuel Quaye, was also killed, along with eight of his countrymen, according to the Ghanaian presidency.