CAIRO — The crash of a military transport plane that killed 257 people on Wednesday was Algeria’s deadliest ever, compounding the woeful air safety record of an insular country where there has been little accountability for such disasters in the past.
A Russian-built Ilyushin plane carrying soldiers and civilians slammed into a field moments after it took off from Boufarik military base, about 15 miles southwest of the capital, Algiers. The plane exploded into flames, sending black smoke billowing into the air. Only a handful of people survived.
The cause of the crash was not immediately known, and Algeria’s Defense Ministry began an investigation. But there was little prospect of any political repercussions in a country that has come to be seen as the region’s hermitlike giant, hesitant and inward-facing, as its economic and political malaise has deepened.
Rich in gas and oil, and the largest country in Africa by size, Algeria should loom large over the region. It avoided the turmoil of the Arab Spring uprisings that engulfed its North African neighbors Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. And it has established itself as a bulwark against Islamist extremism.
But in recent years, falling oil prices have driven up unemployment and fostered disillusionment among the young, who account for half of its 40 million people. The president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, is an infirm man in his 80s who is rarely seen in public, resulting in persistent speculation about his health.
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Marge Keller 10 hours ago
Every time I read about any airline crash, I immediately think of how terrified and passengers and crew must have been in those final…
Paul P. 11 hours ago
It sadly seems that the Algerian people are led by the same short sighted fools who were in power in Thomas Jefferson’s day. Enrich…
Mohammad Azeemullah 11 hours ago
A ‘military’, not ‘civilian’ aircraft crashed! Divinity has its own call. Destiny takes its own course.
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Experts say that Mr. Bouteflika is a front for what is essentially military rule. The government’s inner workings are notoriously opaque — which is why some are skeptical that it will provide answers about Wednesday’s crash.
“The people will resign themselves to it because there is no information,” said Lahouari Addi, a leading Algerian political scientist who teaches at Lyon’s Institut d’Etudes Politiques, but returns to his homeland often. “Public opinion will simply repeat, as usual, that there is corruption everywhere. There is no transparency in Algeria, no debate.”
The crash occurred just before 8 a.m. when people near the Boufarik base saw flames shooting from one engine as the plane lifted off the runway, private Algerian television stations reported. Seconds later, as the plane reached an altitude of about 1,000 feet, it lurched violently and plunged to the ground.
Some onlookers told a private television station that the plane landed on one wing before crashing into a field, where it broke apart and was engulfed in flames.
Dozens of ambulances and scores of rescue workers rushed to the scene but struggled to find survivors as strong winds fanned the blaze, officials said. The fire was extinguished after two hours, Lt. Adel Zghaimi, a security official, told state news media. But by then, just a handful of survivors — no more than five, by most accounts — had been taken to a hospital for injuries.
In the early afternoon, rescue workers laid out long rows of white body bags near the smoldering wreckage. Farouk Achour, a spokesman for the Algerian civil protection agency, told The Associated Press that many bodies showed signs of “deep burns caused by the fuselage catching fire.”
Aviation Safety Network, which tracks air accidents, considers the crash to be the 16th worst in history, excluding ground fatalities, according to Harro Ranter, its chief executive. For Algeria it was the ninth aviation disaster in 15 years, counting helicopter and plane crashes, said Mohamed Khelfaoui, a former officer in the Algerian secret service.
“That’s a lot,” he said, pointing to the military’s aging fleet as a possible cause.
Most of the dead were soldiers and their families, although the toll also included 30 members of Western Sahara’s Polisario independence movement, an official in Algeria’s governing F.L.N. party said. Mr. Bouteflika declared three days of national mourning.
Mr. Bouteflika, 81, has been a sporadic presence since 2013, when a stroke left him in a wheelchair and raised questions about his ability to rule. Yet his appetite for power appears undiminished.
A rare public appearance on Monday, when Mr. Bouteflika opened a mosque and a metro extension, stoked speculation that he intended to run for a fifth term. Supporters insist he remains strong, even if he requires a microphone to make himself heard.
“Except for his dead voice, he is in good shape and he rules the country,” Lakhdar Brahimi, a retired United Nations diplomat and a friend of Mr. Bouteflika, said in a recent interview.
Others say that real power in Algeria lies with the military, which uses civilian leaders as a front for its own interests.
“Bouteflika has no power. The prime minister has no power,” said Mr. Addi, the academic. “It’s the military.”
Algerians privately grumble about corruption inside the military, and accounts of crooked deals involving Russian military suppliers are rife. But faced with harsh political repression, most simply shrug their shoulders — which is why Wednesday’s crash is unlikely to have serious political repercussions.
A handful of senior generals might be forced to retire early, Mr. Addi said. But it was unlikely to go beyond that because “the army never judicially punishes the corrupt,” he said.
Mr. Bouteflika, who came to power in 1999, is part of a thinning generation of Algerians who fought in the 1954-62 independence war against France, and who continue to exert great influence. Although Algeria has large oil and gas reserves, which account for 60 percent of national income, officials are notoriously averse to foreign interference and have imposed strong controls that critics say have choked the economy.
In recent months, teachers and doctors held a series of long strikes to protest their pay and conditions. But some doctors suspended their walkout to treat the plane crash victims on Wednesday, Reuters reported.
Officials said the military plane was headed to Bechar in the southwest of the country, but was scheduled to stop in Tindouf, an area on Algeria’s border with the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
Algeria is a longtime backer of Polisario, the group that has been fighting for independence for Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara since the 1970s. A military official in Algiers, speaking by phone, said the Polisario members killed in the crash had probably been receiving medical treatment at government hospitals before returning to Tindouf.
Until Wednesday, Algeria’s deadliest accident was in July 2014 when an Air Algérie jetliner traveling from Burkina Faso to Algeria crashed in the desert in Mali, killing all 116 people on board, including 54 French citizens. A French investigation into the crash blamed pilot error.
In February of that year, an American-built C-130 Hercules transport plane of the Algerian military, carrying 78 personnel and their families, crashed into a mountain in the northeastern province of Oum El Bouaghi during bad weather. One person survived.