ALGIERS, Algeria – An Air Algerie passenger jet, one of its engines ablaze, crashed shortly after takeoff deep in the Sahara Desert on Thursday, and 102 people were killed, officials said. A young soldier survived.
The Boeing 737, flight 6289, crashed after taking off from Tamanrasset bound for the Algerian capital, Algiers, 1,000 miles to the north.
Terrorism was not suspected, said an airline spokesman, Hamid Hamdi.
"There was a mechanical problem on takeoff," he said. "There is no element that leads us to think there was a terrorist attack."
Witnesses at the Tamanrasset airport and airline officials said one of the plane's two jet engines caught fire as it was taking off.
APS, Algeria's official state-run news agency, and airline officials at the scene said 102 had been killed. But an official at the airline's office in Algiers told The Associated Press that he couldn't immediately confirm the number of deaths.
"Unfortunately, we know only of one survivor," said Hamdi, identifying him as a young Algerian soldier who was in a critical but stable condition in a Tamanrasset hospital.
Algeria, an oil- and gas-rich nation in North Africa, has been torn by a decade-long insurgency by Islamic militants that has left tens of thousands dead.
Seven French citizens were among the 97 passengers, APS reported. Hamdi said he knew of six Europeans aboard. The remaining passengers and six crew members were Algerians, he said.
Hamdi said 39 passengers were headed for Algiers and that 58 others were to disembark at a stop in Ghardaia.
Prime Minister Ali Benflis set up a crisis unit at airports in Algiers and Tamanrasset to deal with the crash, thought to be the first in the history of Algerian commercial aviation. An investigative unit was also set up at the Tamanrasset airport.
Hamdi, the airline spokesman, insisted that the downed plane had been well maintained.
"This Boeing 737-200 was, at takeoff, in perfect working order," he said. State-run Air Algerie was established in 1953 and this was its first crash, he said.
Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni and Transportation Minister Abdelmalek Sellal were headed to the scene.
Tamanrasset, in the Hoggar Mountains, is a stop for Sahara Desert travelers in a region of ancient archaeological sites and prehistoric paintings and engravings.
Weather did not appear to be a factor in the crash. Hamdi said it was sunny.
Tamanrasset is also a meeting place for Tuaregs, nomadic people known for their blue robes.
More than 120,000 people have been killed in the insurgency launched by Islamic militants after they were shut of out parliamentary elections in 1992.
In late 1994, one of Algeria's most radical groups, the Armed Islamic Group, hijacked an Air France plane, killing three passengers. Most international carriers stopped flights to Algeria after the hijacking, and Air Algerie flights to Paris were suspended for two years.
Algeria's army has been hunting down insurgents who refused President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's offer of amnesty for some militants willing to surrender their weapons. But militant groups have struck back, stepping up attacks on army convoys.