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02:12 PM, October 24, 2016
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Metroliner that crashed this morning (Photo-Shaun Psaila via Times of Malta)

Five French military officers were killed when a twin-prop Fairchild Metroliner, part of French customs surveillance operation heading for Libyan coast crashed in Safi after developing engine trouble immediately after it took to air from Malta’s international airport.

Witnesses on site of the rescue described the scene as a pile of charred, black metal parts, owing to the scale of the explosion that ensued as the aircraft, a Fairchild Metroliner MkIII, crashed into the ground, Malta Today reported Monday.

The Maltese government has confirmed that the flight was part of a French Customs surveillance operation, which has been taking place for the past five months and tasked with tracing routes of illicit trafficking of all sorts, including human trafficking and drug trafficking.

The remains of all five French nationals have been found.

The government said that information, footage and eyewitness accounts included those of three Armed Forces of Malta personnel at the nearby Safi barracks and two commercial airline pilots, clearly indicated there was no explosion prior to impact.

Military sources were quoted by the news daily as saying that the small aircraft was departing to head to Misrata in north-western Libya, on an anti-human trafficking mission. But the EU border agency Frontex confirmed that the plane was not one of its aircraft and EU High Representative Federica Mogherini said the officials were not part of an EU mission. It would appear that the plane is regularly leased out to EU and United States military personnel in Malta.

The Fairchild Metroliner, registration number N577MX, was registered to Canada-based CAE Aviation, a major civil and defence contractor offering aircraft simulation and training to civilian clients as well as many defence and security agencies, including all US services.

The Fairchild Swearingen Metroliner (later Fairchild Aerospace Metro) is a 19-seat, pressurised, twin-turboprop airliner first produced by Swearingen Aircraft and later by Fairchild. This type of aircraft has been involved in 22 other crash incidents, the one before the Malta accident being on 2 June, 2014 when a Aeronaves TSM Fairchild (Swearingen) SA226TC Metro II, registration XA-UKP, crashed shortly after take-off from Querétaro international airport, Querétaro State, Mexico.

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