BAMAKO, Mali -- A Soviet-built airliner exploded and crashed shortly after takeoff from the ancient slave-trade desert town of Timbuktu today, killing 50 of the 51 people aboard, including American tourists, reports from the west African nation said.
'We do know there were Americans on board,' said Dave Kyzner, a spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Bamako, the capital of the former French colony.
'There are 14 or 15 European and American sounding last names on the (passenger) list, but there's no way of properly identifying them,' Kyzner said, explaining that the list only contained family names and no further details.
He said a team of U.S. Embassy personnel would visit the crash site Saturday although the embassy had lost all communication with Timbuktu, situated on the edge of the Sahel Desert some 400 miles northeast of the capital.
He said Air Mali officials reported the Antonov-24 plane developed engine trouble shortly after takeoff. It turned back to Timbuktu and exploded in the air, apparently as an engine caught fire.
Airline officials said the jet crashed in the desert about 2 miles from Timbuktu. Kyzner said the plane burned for 'between two and three hours' in the desert.
The government-owned Mali Press Agency reported there was only one survivor, a Malian identified only as Ouologuem, who was in critical condition. There were eight crew and 43 passengers, the agency said.
A government delegation from the capital was having trouble getting to the site of the crash because of severe sand storms that have swept the drought-stricken region for the past 10 days, the agency reported.
The twice-weekly three-hour flight between Bamako, Mopti, Gao and Timbuktu was a popular run with adventure-seekers. Timbuktu is a popular site for American tourists.
Many travelers to Africa fly from Bamako to the dusty desert town, stop overnight in one of the two hotels, get their passports stamped at the local police station and fly back to the capital.
Timbuktu is 1,000 years old and reached its height as a trading capital on the West African slave, gold and salt caravan routes during the 17th century Mali Empire.
It declined after the abolition of slavery and is now a small town of two mosques and a collection of colonial-period buildings in the windblown desert region.
It was the second major airline crash this week. On Tuesday, an Iberia Boeing 727 crashed into a mountainside on its approach to the northern Spanish city of Bilbao, killing all 148 on board.