Beirut: An Ethiopian Airlines plane carrying 90 people crashed into the Mediterranean Sea in flames early Monday just minutes after takeoff from Beirut, authorities said.
Four bodies were recovered in the hours after the crash as authorities combed through the choppy waters under gray skies, a Lebanese military official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
The cause of the crash was not immediately known, but a police official said it was likely weather-related. Beirut has seen heavy rain and lightning since Sunday.
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman said terrorism was not suspected. “Sabotage is ruled out as of now,” he said.
The Boeing 737-800 took off around 2:30am, (7:30pm EST) for the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, said Ghazi Aridi, the public works and transportation minister.
“The weather undoubtedly was very bad,” Aridi told reporters at the airport. He added that the plane went down about 2 miles (3.5 kilometers) off the Lebanese coast.
The Lebanese army said in a statement saying the plane was “on fire shortly after takeoff.”
The wife of the French ambassador to Lebanon was on the plane, according to an embassy official who asked that his name not be used because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Helicopters and naval ships were scrambled for a rescue effort amid intermittent rain, thunder and lightning.
Ethiopian Airlines released a statement on its Web site confirming the plane was missing.
“A team is already working on gathering all pertinent information,” the statement said. “An investigative team has already been dispatched to the scene and we will release further information as further updates are received.”
Calls to the airline were not immediately returned.
Relatives of the passengers began arriving at the airport early Monday, many of them crying and hugging. Officials led them into a VIP area.
The plane was carrying 90 people, including 83 passengers and 7 crew. Aridi identified the passengers as 54 Lebanese, 22 Ethiopians, one Iraqi, one Syrian, one Canadian of Lebanese origin, one Russian of Lebanese origin, a French woman and two Britons of Lebanese origin.
Ethiopian Airlines reported that there were 82 passengers and eight crew; the discrepancy could not immediately be explained.
Ethiopian Airlines has long had a reputation for high-quality service compared to other African airlines, with two notable crashes in more than 20 years.
A hijacked Ethiopian Airlines jet crash-landed off the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean when it ran out of fuel in November 1996, killing 126 of the 175 people aboard. The plane had just left Addis Ababa when three hijackers stormed the cockpit and demanded to be taken to Australia.
In September 1988, an Ethiopian Airlines jet crashed shortly after taking off when it ran into a flock of birds, killing 31 of the 104 people on board.