The pilot of an Ethiopian airliner that crashed off the Lebanese coast did not respond to a request to change direction before contact was cut, the Lebanese transport minister has said.
Ghazi Aridi said on Tuesday it was too early to draw any conclusion of pilot error, but the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737-800 plane made a sharp turn before disappearing off the radar early on Monday and plunging into the sea.
"The control tower asked him to go in a certain direction, but the pilot was not responsive, then communication was cut off and the plane disappeared off the radar," Aridi said.
"We don't know why he did that or what happened," he said.
Lebanese and international search teams, a US naval vessel, and peacekeeping ships, helicopters, planes and divers from Europe and the UN, have been scouring the Mediterranean coast for the victims and missing flight data recorders.
Flight ET409, which was carrying 90 passengers of mostly Lebanese and Ethiopian descent, took off from Beirut aiport and was headed to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on Monday.
The plane apparently broke up in the air before crashing into the sea during a thunderstorm before dawn.
Wogayehu Tefere, an Ethiopian Airlines spokeswoman, said it was very unlikely that any of the 90 people travelling on the airliner would be found alive.
"It is very unlikely that we can still recover some survivors.
|The airline was viewed as one of Africa's safest with a new fleet and well-trained crew [AFP]
"So far 25 bodies have been recovered and, according to the first report of our team there, there are six Ethiopian bodies among them, and eight Lebanese. But it has to be confirmed," Wogayehu said.
Recovery teams pulled out a segment of the plane's wing that had the plane's red, yellow and green colours emblazoned on it.
Rescue services were combing a search area 10km out to sea and 20km long for the plane's fuselage.
Sonar equipment was being used to detect the wreckage.
"They need to pinpoint the location of the wreckage and then launch a dive there," the official said, to find data recorders.
Girma Wake, Ethiopian Airlines chief executive, said he believed search teams would manage to locate the flight recorders, commonly referred to as black boxes.
The eight-year-old plane last underwent a maintenance check on December 25 and no technical problems were found, the Reuters news agency reported.
Most of the Lebanese passengers, 54 in total, were businessmen and women from the south of the country.
Day of mourning
Black flags were draped on poles along a main road in Tyre, a port city. One Lebanese victim, identified by the passport still in his pocket, was buried near Tyre on Tuesday.
The last fatal incident involving Ethiopian Airlines was in November 1996 when a hijacked Boeing 767 crashed off the Comoros Islands, killing 125 of the 175 passengers and crew.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Hamburg, Germany, 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."
"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."
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.