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The Boeing 737-800, heading for Addis Ababa, disappeared off the radar some five minutes after taking off at 2:37 a.m. (0037 GMT) during a thunder storm and heavy rain. Lebanese President Michel Suleiman said he did not think the plane had been brought down deliberately.
"As of now, a sabotage act is unlikely. The investigation will uncover the cause," Suleiman told a news conference.
Fourteen bodies have so far been recovered near the crash site three-and-a-half km (two miles) west of the coastal village of Na'ameh. Eighty-three passengers and seven crew were on the flight, Transport Minister Ghazi al-Aridi said at the airport.
Ethiopian Airlines CEO Girma Wake said he had spoken with Lebanese authorities who did not confirm there were survivors.
Fifty-four of those on board were Lebanese, 22 were Ethiopian, two were British and there were also Canadian, Russian, French, Iraqi and Syrian nationals.
Marla Pietton, wife of the French ambassador to Lebanon Denis Pietton, was on the plane, the French embassy said.
The Lebanese government declared a day of mourning. Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri visited the airport to meet distraught relatives waiting for news of survivors, some of whom were angry that the plane was allowed to take off in bad weather.
"They should have delayed the flight for an hour or two to protect the passengers. There had been strong lightning bolts and we hear that lighting strikes at planes especially during take offs," a relative of one of the passengers told a local television station.
"BALL OF FIRE"
Lebanese army patrol boats and helicopters were searching a small area off Na'ameh, 10 km (six miles) south of Beirut.
The military spokesman for U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon, Colonel Diego Fulco, said two ships from its maritime task force were at the crash site and a third was on its way. Two U.N. helicopters were also at the scene, he said.
A Cypriot police helicopter and another from the British military stationed in Cyprus were also involved in the search.
According to one source, residents on the coast saw a "ball of fire" crashing off Na'ameh.
State-owned Ethiopian Airlines has positioned itself as a major player in international air traffic in Africa and has recently expanded its Asian network.
It has regular flights to Lebanon, catering for business clients and the hundreds of Ethiopians who work there as domestic helpers. Lebanese aviation sources said some of the passengers had been en route to Angola.
Last Friday the airline announced an order for 10 of Boeing's Next-Generation 737-800s for a total price of $767 million.
The last major incident involving Ethiopian Airlines was in November 1996 when 125 of the 175 passengers and crew died after a hijacked Boeing 767 crashed into the sea off the Comoros Islands.
PARASTATAL heads who signed the Mombasa port community charter risk being sacked if their agencies do not deliver on the contents of the new entity. The charter signed between the government and the private sector aims at improving the movement of cargo from the port into hinterland