ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — An Ethiopian Airlines flight with 157 people thought to be on board crashed shortly after takeoff Sunday morning from Ethiopia’s capital while headed to Nairobi, the airline said.

The airline later confirmed that two Israeli passengers were aboard.

Tewolde GebreMariam, chief executive officer of Ethiopian Airlines, told journalists that the pilot had alerted controllers “he had difficulties,” wanted to turn the plane around, and “was given clearance” to do that.
Ethiopia’s state broadcaster EBC said all passengers were dead, adding that they were of 33 nationalities.

The Addis Ababa-Nairobi route is often used by Israelis, as there are no direct flights between Israel and Kenya. Channel 13 reported that the plane that crashed had been in Israel as recently as last Wednesday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel’s ambassador in Addis Ababa, Raphael Moran, had confirmed the death of the Israelis.

“Unfortunately, our ambassador in Ethiopia informs us that two Israelis were killed in the plane crash. Our hearts are with the families,” Netanyahu said in a video posted from outside the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. Netanyahu said he went to the ministry, which had opened an emergency situation room earlier Sunday, to get a firsthand impression of the situation.

The state-owned Ethiopian Airlines, widely considered the best-managed airline in Africa, calls itself Africa’s largest carrier and has ambitions of becoming the gateway to the continent.

The airline’s statement said 149 passengers and eight crew members were thought to be on the plane, which crashed six minutes after departing Addis Ababa on its way to Kenya’s capital. The crash occurred around Bishoftu, or Debre Zeit, some 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of Addis Ababa, at 8:44 a.m.

In this photo taken from the Ethiopian Airlines Facebook page, the CEO of Ethiopian Airlines, Tewolde Gebremariam, looks at the wreckage of the plane that crashed shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, March 10, 2019. (Facebook via AP)

A statement by the Ethiopian prime minister’s office offered its “deepest condolences” to families.

“My prayers go to all the families and associates of those on board,” Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta said.

Authorities said 32 Kenyans and nine Ethiopians were killed, in addition to the two Israelis. The dead also included 18 Canadians; eight each from China, the United States and Italy; seven each from France and Britain; six from Egypt; five from the Netherlands and four each from India and Slovakia.

Records show that the plane was new. The Planespotters civil aviation database shows that the Boeing 737-8 MAX was delivered to Ethiopian Airlines in mid-November.

In October, another Boeing 737-8 MAX plunged into the Java Sea just minutes after taking off from Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, killing all 189 people on board. The cockpit data recorder showed that the jet’s airspeed indicator had malfunctioned on its last four flights, though Lion Air initially claimed that problems with the aircraft had been fixed.

The last deadly crash of an Ethiopian Airlines passenger plane was in 2010, when a plane crashed minutes after takeoff from Beirut, killing all 90 people on board.

Sunday’s crash comes as the country’s reformist prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, has vowed to open up the airline and other sectors to foreign investment in a major transformation of the state-centered economy.

Ethiopian Airlines has been expanding assertively, recently opening a route to Moscow and in January inaugurating a new passenger terminal in Addis Ababa to triple capacity.

Speaking at the inauguration, the prime minister challenged the airline to build a new “Airport City” terminal in Bishoftu — where Sunday’s crash occurred.

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