A light aircraft conducting a French surveillance mission over the Mediterranean crashed soon after takeoff from Malta’s airport Monday, killing all five people on board, authorities said.
According to a video of the moment posted on Facebook, the twin-prop Fairchild Metroliner banked to the right and slammed into the ground in a huge fireball soon after lifting off at 7:20 a.m. (0520 GMT), sending a huge plume of black smoke into the air as passengers could be heard crying.
The incident led to closing Malta International Airport for several hours in what was the country’s worst peacetime air incident.
The flight was part of a customs operation the French have been conducting for the last five months, tracking human trafficking and drugs smuggling, the Maltese government said. Airport officials said the plane had been heading for Misrata in Libya.
It was a “reconnaissance aircraft … carrying out surveillance operations over the Mediterranean for the defense ministry,” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.
The ministry said the victims — three defense ministry officials and two private contractors — had been conducting a surveillance operation. Malta’s government said the flight was part of a French Customs operation tracing routes of illicit trafficking, both of humans and drugs, leaving Libya’s lawless coasts.
“Official information, footage and eyewitnesses … clearly indicate that there was no explosion prior to impact,” the government said.
The flight was registered as local with Malta Air Traffic Services and was due to return to Malta within hours without landing in any other countries, the government said.
Airport sources initially said the plane was believed to be carrying officials from European Union border agency Frontex, but the organization later said none of its staff were involved.
Federica Mogherini, the EU Commission Vice President and high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, also said no other EU officials were involved, adding: “The flight was not related to any of the EU activities.”
The plane was registered in the United States and was leased to Luxembourg-based CAE Aviation.
CAE Aviation said the plane was not operating on behalf of Frontex or the Luxembourg government.