By Hamid Ould Ahmed
ALGIERS (Reuters) - More than 250 people including members of Western Sahara’s Polisario independence movement were killed when a military plane crashed in a field outside Algeria’s capital on Wednesday, officials said.
Television footage showed crowds gathering around the smoking and flaming wreckage near Boufarik airport southwest of Algiers. A line of white body bags could be seen on the ground next to what media said was a Russian Ilyushin transport plane.
A total of 257 people died in the crash, state TV reported.
A member of Algeria’s ruling FLN party told the private Ennahar TV station the dead included 26 members of Polisario, an Algerian-backed group fighting for the independence of neighboring Western Sahara – a territory also claimed by Morocco in a long-running dispute.
The plane was heading to Tindouf, an area on Algeria’s border with Western Sahara, but crashed on the airport’s perimeter, Algeria’s defense ministry said.
Tindouf is home to thousands of refugees from the Western Sahara standoff, many of them Polisario supporters.
U.N. attempts to broker a settlement have failed for years in the vast desert area, which has contested since 1975 when Spanish colonial powers left. Morocco claimed the territory while Polisario established its self-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic there.
Algeria’s defense ministry issued a statement expressing condolences to families of the victims.
In February 2014, an Algerian Air Force Lockheed C-130 Hercules crashed in a mountainous area in eastern Algeria killing 77 passengers and leaving one survivor.
(Reporting by Lamine Chikhi, Hamid Ould Ahmed, Aidan Lewis and Ulf Laessing; Writing by Ulf Laessing and Aidan Lewis; Editing by John Stonestreet and Andrew Heavens)