UPDATE 5 – Fears grow for 150 people as plane crashes in France

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Germanwings says 2 babies, 67 German citizens are among the passengers; French MP Christophe Castaner tweets of horror at crash site.

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*ADDS French MP, Interior Minister comments, Background

By Hajer M’tiri & Ayhan Simsek

BERLIN / PARIS (AA) – Nearly 150 people are feared dead after an Airbus A320 plane flown by low-budget airline Germanwings crashed in southern France.

A total of 144 passengers and six crew were aboard flight number 4U 9525, Germanwings CEO Thomas Winkelmann said, when the 24-year-old aircraft went down in the French Alps Tuesday.

The aircraft disappeared from radar screens at about 11:00 local time as it headed from the Spanish city of Barcelona to Dusseldorf in Germany, according to aviation officials.

Two babies and 67 German citizens were among the passengers, Winkelmann told journalists at a press conference in the German city of Cologne.

He declined to give information on the nationalities of other victims, stressing that they were trying to contact families first, and would inform the media after confirming the exact names and nationalities of the passengers.

Turkish, German and Spanish nationals were among the passengers, King Felipe VI of Spain said in Paris during a state visit to France. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said at a press conference in Spain that 45 victims were Spanish. Sixteen students and two teachers from the German city of Haltern were among the victims, local media reported.

– Chances of survival look slim

French President Francois Hollande said: “The conditions of the accident suggest that there are no survivors.”

“The crash area is a horror. The aircraft is totally destroyed. Sadness,” tweeted French MP Christophe Castaner, who was in the helicopter with French Interior Minister Bernard Cazenenve over the crash site.

“Terrible scenes in this mountain landscape. There is nothing left but debris and bodies,” Castaner wrote.

At the crash site, Cazeneuve told reporters: “The strength of the crash leaves little hope that anyone is still alive.”

According to the French justice ministry, the Marseille prosecutor has launched a probe into the incident to determine the reasons behind the crash.

– Cause of crash unknown

Winkelmann told journalists that the aircraft crashed at 10:53 local time, 52 minutes after its departure from the Spanish city of Barcelona to Dusseldorf in Germany.

“According to the information we have for the time being, the aircraft reached to its regular cruising altitude at 10:45 and after a minute it has entered into a descent, which continued for eight minutes,” he said.

He stressed that the aircraft went through routine checks last Monday in Dusseldorf.

He also underlined that the pilot of the aircraft had an experience of at least 6,000 flight hours with Airbus models, and was working for Germanwings and its sister company for 10 years.

He promised a full investigation to reveal the cause of the plane crash and said a team of experts from the airline and Lufthansa had been sent to France.

– Bad weather

Snow, rain and heavy winds were reported to be sweeping the site of the crash in at Meolans-Revels near the town of Barcelonnette, with bad weather forecast for the coming days which would hamper any rescue and recovery operation.

“We are working with the French and German authorities in the investigation into the accident,” said Rajoy.

The secretary of state for transport, Alain Vidal, said: “There was a distress call recorded at 10:47 … (which) showed that the aircraft was at 5,000 feet, in an abnormal situation and the crash took place shortly after this signal.”

Pierre-Henry Brandet, spokesperson of the French Interior Ministry, said the plane crashed “in a mountainous area difficult to access, at 2,000 meters above sea level”.

Hollande said he would discuss the tragedy with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and search-and-rescue teams with helicopters were heading to the crash site.

– Merkel to travel to France

German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her “deep sorrow” over the plane crash and promised a comprehensive investigation.

Merkel said at a press conference in Berlin that she phoned French President Francois Hollande and Spain’s Rajoy, and they agreed to closely cooperate to find out the cause of the crash. Merkel added that she would travel to the crash site Wednesday.

German President Joachim Gauck cut short an official visit to South America, and his spokeswoman announced that a planned visit to Uruguay Wednesday was also cancelled.

– Germany sets up crisis desk

German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier said in Berlin that Germany had set up a special crisis desk and hotline number +49 30 5000 3000 in connection with the plane crash.

“We are in very close contact with the French authorities – I have already contacted my French colleague Fabius. We will cooperate closely,” Steinmeier said at a joint press conference with Montenegro’s Foreign Minister Igor Luksic.

Steinmeier cancelled his program for Tuesday afternoon and headed to the scene of the crash, together with German Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt.

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron said: “Today’s plane crash in the Alps is heartbreaking news.”

“The UK will do everything it can to support the French emergency services.”

The French union of air traffic controllers, SNCTA, announced in a statement that it had suspended strikes planned for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday given the “dramatic circumstances.” The SCNTA states that one of the reasons for their strike was their concerns over overloaded airspace.

The crash is the first on French soil since July 25, 2000, when an Air France Concorde crashed into a hotel in Gonesse in the Val-d’Oise, shortly after taking off from Roissy-CDG airport, leaving 13 German passengers and crew members dead along with four people on the ground.

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