Malta says plane crashed en route to Libya surveillance trip

In this image taken from a video smoke billows as a light plane crashed after takeoff from Malta airport, in Valletta, Monday, Oct. 24, 2016.  (AP Photo/Ed De Gaetano)
In this image taken from a video smoke billows as a light plane crashed after takeoff from Malta airport, in Valletta, Monday, Oct. 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Ed De Gaetano)

VALLETTA, Malta (AP) — A small plane heading toward Libya’s coast to monitor migrant trafficking routes for the French government crashed soon after takeoff from Malta’s airport Monday, killing all five French crew members, authorities said.

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. local time, according to video of the moment captured by a dashboard videocam and posted on Facebook.

The French defense 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.

Libya is the main point of departure for the tens of thousands of migrants who have been paying smugglers to bring them toward Europe by boat.

Earlier, authorities had said the flight was headed to Misrata, Libya; the Maltese government said later that the aircraft was due to return to Malta within a few hours without landing elsewhere.

Malta’s International Airport is used for surveillance flights to Libya due to its proximity. The government said the French surveillance operation has been active for about five months.

The airport was closed for four hours while debris was cleared, delaying more than a dozen flights, according to a notice on the airport website.

The Metroliner was registered in the U.S. and leased to a Luxembourg company, CAE Aviation group, which supplied the two contractors who were killed.

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This story has been corrected to give the spelling of the location originally given as the plane’s destination as Misrata.