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Families mourn victims of Air Algerie crash in Mali

By Michel Rose and Tiemoko Diallo

PARIS/BAMAKO (Reuters) - Family members of those killed on the Air Algerie flight that crashed in Mali were taken to the wreckage to grieve on Saturday as French President Francois Hollande announced three days of mourning.

Hollande ordered that flags on government buildings across France fly at half-mast for three days from Monday after the death of 118 people including 54 French nationals in the crash.

Hollande, who met with relatives of victims for three hours on Saturday afternoon, said that all the bodies would be flown to France and that he would make sure that families can, at some point, travel to the crash site to help them cope with their grief.

"A headstone will be erected so that no one ever forgets that on this land, on this site, 118 people perished," Hollande said in a television address, his third on the air disaster in three days.

Families of victims from Burkina Faso, from where the McDonnell Douglas MD-83 aircraft took off early on Thursday morning, were flown out by helicopter to pay respects at the scrubby bushland site.

But, in a blow to the bereaved, the mayor for the northern Malian town of Gossi, said that the remains would be difficult to recover.

"No bodies cannot be recovered because they are shredded and burned. Everything has burned, even the forest in a radius of 200 meters," said Moussa Ag Almouner.

"It is heart-breaking and difficult for any person to bear. You are left with no appetite. It's better not to go and see," he added, after a visit to the site.

As well as French and Burkinabe, those aboard included Lebanese, Algerians, Spanish, Canadians, Germans, Luxembourgers, a Cameroonian, a Belgian, an Egyptian, a Ukrainian, a Swiss, a Nigerian and a Malian.

PROBES BEGIN

Initial evidence taken from the remote crash site indicates that the aircraft broke apart when it smashed to the ground early on Thursday morning, making an attack appear unlikely.

Hollande confirmed that early signs pointed to poor weather as the most likely cause of the crash, but added he did not rule out any other explanation at this stage. Two separate investigations are ongoing, he said.

The United Nations peacekeeping force MINUSMA said on Saturday that its experts had located the second black box from the flight.

French, Malian and Dutch soldiers from MINUSMA secured the crash site, about 80 km (50 miles) south of Gossi, near the Burkina Faso border. A resident in the north Malian town of Gao said he saw about 20 researchers from French aviation safety body BEA preparing to visit the site on Saturday.

Aviation authorities lost contact with the plane at around 2155 EST on Thursday, shortly after the pilot asked to change course due to a storm.

Another plane crash is likely to add to nervousness about flying a week after a Malaysia Airlines plane was downed over Ukraine, and after a TransAsia Airways plane crashed off Taiwan during a thunderstorm on Wednesday.

(Additional reporting by Mathias Drabo in Ouagadougou; Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Toby Chopra)

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