Mr Lyman, a former US ambassador to both South Africa and Nigeria, warned that a heavy-handed approach by African officials would probably exacerbate the problem and threaten the desert region’s delicate security balance.
“Taking on the smuggling problem presents the danger of driving these tribal groups into the arms of AQIM because they resent a government presence that impinges on their smuggling activities, so it’s a delicate area how you increase in security” he said.
“You’ve got to build greater trust between Tuaregs and their home governments, and that requires more development and maybe even closing their eyes to some of the more benign smuggling activity that’s taking place. It’s not an easy task at all.”
Unsurprisingly, AFP wire service reporter Serge Daniel was the first journalist to get to the crash site, or more importantly, the first to file having done so. There are pictures of the wreck, which has been extensively scavenged for scrap metal; of course, the scrapmen will have helped to get rid of the evidence.
Hawa Semaga of Journal du Mali has an excellent piece which makes clear that the Guinea-Bissau authorities were looking for the plane at the time of its last flight, for a variety of reasons involving safety and registration violations. Further, it seems that the crew used false documents claiming that the aircraft was registered in Saudi Arabia. In yet another piece of useful information, the article confirms part of the route, and introduces the news that the plane passed through Cape Verde airspace on its way to the fateful airstrip, and then headed for Guinea-Bissau. They also suggest it stopped in Colombia as well as Venezuela.
My sources add that the current route was thought to be Dakar-Fortaleza-Panama-Maracaibo and then to the crash site, but there would have had to be intermediate stops between FOR and PTY and between MAR and Gao, as the sectors in question are 2,952 and 4,820 miles respectively. Replotting, with the new data:
(The map details are here.) That's all possible, but the 727 would have needed a further South American stop between Fortaleza and Panama outward bound and between Maracaibo and Sal, Cape Verde inward bound - the simplest option would be to have gone via Maracaibo outward bound and via Fortaleza inward, which is marginal for the 727-200 (2,489 miles), but there might have been a fair wind that day.
Here's their destination: N18.00031, W0.0031.
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Bugger all is an understatement. This Senegalese Web site has a gripping account of a visit to the crash site, starting off with a roast sheep party, hours of gruelling desert travel, fear of stumbling on another clandestine landing, and proceeding to a chat with security sources. Key facts appear to be that the landing zone was prepared on a dry lakebed, that the aircraft was taxied off the hard surface into the sand, and that some five vehicles with Niger registration plates met it, but that the Niger plates were faked in another neighbouring country. There's also some detail on the scavenging of the aircraft:
Mais ce 10 décembre 2009, je constate que l’appareil a perdu beaucoup de poids. Je trouve sur place la réponse : je vois des traces de tadjila, nourriture prisée chez les touaregs. Alors que s’est-il passé ? Des dizaines, et des dizaines de personnes dont des touaregs viennent s’installer et couper l’épave, récupérer de l’aluminium, et aller le vendre aux forgerons. 1 500 FCFA le kilo d’aluminium. Triste fin pour l’épave. Triste fin pour l'avion.
Everyone is now working on the assumption that the aircraft was deliberately destroyed. It's possible that the aircraft was driven into the sand in order to give the impression of a runway excursion accident. The author states that the aircraft's registration is visible, and that it's South American, but he or she doesn't say what it was.
Boeing 727-230F number 21619, currently the top suspect, was placed in storage in Dakar by "Africa Aviation Assistance" in June, with a view to ferrying the aircraft to Rio in July. This company was shut down in July after it turned out that its AOC had never been issued. Around about the same time, another 727-200 freighter, number 22644, operating for DHL under the Saudi registration HZ-SNE, was destroyed in an accident in Lagos. And, after this crash, the first 727 was registered HZ-SNE for a while.
I therefore guess that the fake Saudi documents were used to pretend that the 727 that ended up in the desert was actually HZ-SNE/22644, respectably carrying general cargo for DHL. AAA planned to register it in the Guinea-Bissau (J5-) registry; apparently they involved Guinea in some way, as the Guinea authorities were looking for the plane. But we know that if it used the registration J5-GGU at all, as previously thought, it was yet another fake.
It doesn't seem obvious, though, that anyone would casually torch an aircraft that had the special feature of having a twin identity.