Lebanese army patrol boats, helicopters and divers searched an area off Na'ameh, 10km south of the capital, but said that there was little chance of finding survivors in the rough seas.

Mangled aircraft seats and luggage were washed up on the shore.

Waiting for news

Friends and relatives gathered at the airport and local hospitals awaiting news of their loved ones.

Al Jazeera's Rula Amin, reporting from Beirut, said families were pouring into the hospitals.

"They have been giving DNA samples so that the forensic experts will be able to match them with the bodies they have found because many of the bodies that have arrived here have been mutilated," she said.

"That is why the families have been expressing frustration. They really are desperate to know what happened to their relatives who were on that plane."

In the past two days, many parts of Lebanon have suffered harsh wintry storms that have caused heavy flooding and damage in some parts of the country.

"There was bad weather," Girma Wake, the Ethiopian Airlines chief executive, said. 

"How bad it is, I will not be able to say. But, from what I see, probably it was manageable weather otherwise the crew would not have taken off."

The Ethiopian News Agency in Addis Ababa said Ethiopian Airlines had sent a team to Beirut to investigate the crash.

'Cataclysmic failure'

Chris Yates, a UK-based aviation analyst, said that modern aircraft are built to withstand all but the foulest weather conditions.

"One wouldn't have thought that a nasty squall in and of itself would be the prime cause of an accident like this," he said.

Many relatives flooded Beirut airport or local hospitals to wait for news [AFP]
He said that reports of fire could suggest "some cataclysmic failure of one of the engines" or that something had been sucked into the engine, such as a bird or debris.

Tobias Rueckerl, an aviation consultant, said: "It is much too early to speculate about the cause, but it seems like the weather had a major impact on that crash.

"Ethiopian airlines is one of the much better African airlines," he told Al Jazeera from Hamburg in Germany.

"They have a comparably young fleet of aircraft, they have very well trained people, they are following near European standards. So I would count them as a safe airline basically.

Michel Sleiman, the Lebanese president, said he did not think the plane had been brought down deliberately, emphasising that "a sabotage attack is unlikely".

The passengers included 54 Lebanese nationals, 22 Ethiopians, as well as Iraqi, Syrian, British and French nationals, he said.

There were also several dual nationals including one British-Lebanese, one Canadian-Lebanese and a Russian-Lebanese.

Saad Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, announced a day of mourning and closed schools and government offices.