BEIRUT (Reuters) - All 90 people aboard an Ethiopian Airlines plane were feared dead after it plunged into the Mediterranean in a ball of fire, minutes after taking off from Beirut in a raging thunderstorm on Monday.
More than 16 hours after the crash and with night falling, authorities downplayed hopes of finding survivors and search efforts focussed on recovering the remains of passengers still strapped to their seats and the black box flight recorders.
Flight ET409, a Boeing 737-800, heading for Addis Ababa, disappeared off the radar five minutes after taking off at 2:37 a.m. (12:37 a.m. British time).
The Lebanese army said the plane had broken up in the air before plummeting into rough seas. One witness described the impact as a "flash that lit up the whole sea."
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman said he did not think the plane had been brought down deliberately, emphasising "a sabotage attack is unlikely."
Defence Minister Elias el-Murr said that weather "in principle" was to blame for the crash. He later told local media there was information indicating "it was a pilot error" but did not provide further details.
Ethiopian Airlines CEO Girma Wake said he had spoken with Lebanese authorities and there was no word of survivors. Eighty-three passengers and seven crew were on the flight.
Twenty-four bodies, including those of two toddlers, had been recovered. At least six of the bodies recovered were of Ethiopians, officials said.
Only one of the 14 bodies being examined at a Beirut hospital, where weeping relatives gathered, was identifiable. The rest would require DNA testing to confirm identities, Health Minister Mohammad Khalifeh said.
Khalifeh said hopes were fading for any survivors. A U.S. Navy ship with advanced equipment arrived in Lebanon to aid in the night search.
Mangled debris, aircraft seats and luggage washed up on the shore south of Beirut near the airport's main runway.
Fifty-four of those on board were Lebanese, 22 were Ethiopian, two were British and there also were Canadian, Russian, French, Iraqi, Syrian, and Turkish nationals.
Marla Pietton, wife of the French ambassador to Lebanon Denis Pietton, was on the plane, the embassy said. Most of the Lebanese passengers were Shi'ites from southern Lebanon who have business interests in Africa.
The Lebanese government declared a day of mourning. Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri visited the airport to meet distraught relatives, some of whom were angry that the plane was allowed to take off in bad weather.
"They should have delayed the flight for an hour or two to protect the passengers. There had been strong lightning bolts and we hear that lightning strikes at planes, especially during take-offs," a relative of one of the passengers said.
Information Minister Tareq Mitri said there was no reason not to give the plane the permission to take off.
"Other planes landed and took off after and before it. There was no reason why the airport authorities should not have allowed it to take off," he told reporters.
Airline CEO Girma said he did not think the crew would have taken off in dangerous weather conditions.
"There was bad weather. 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," he told reporters in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.
A team of investigators from Ethiopia, including Ethiopian Airlines officials, arrived in Beirut. Boeing said it was coordinating with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board to assist Lebanese authorities in the inquiry.
Lebanese army, U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon, Cypriot police and the British military stationed in Cyprus provided helicopters, ships and divers to aid search-and-rescue efforts in an area off Na'ameh, 10 km (six miles) south of the capital.
State-owned Ethiopian Airlines has positioned itself as a major player in international air traffic in Africa and has recently expanded its Asian network.
Girma said the plane, built in 2002, last underwent a maintenance check on December 25 and no technical problems were found. The plane had been leased from a division of U.S. financing company CIT Group.
Last Friday the airline announced an order for 10 of Boeing 737-800s for $767 million.
Ethiopian Airlines has regular flights to Lebanon, catering for business clients and the thousands of Ethiopians who work there as domestic helpers. Some passengers had been en route to Angola and other African countries.
The last incident involving Ethiopian Airlines was in November 1996 when 125 of the 175 passengers and crew died after a hijacked Boeing 767 crashed off the Comoros Islands.