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Questions over Ethiopian jet's path before crash

By Yara Bayoumy

BEIRUT (Reuters) - The pilot of an Ethiopian airliner that crashed off the Lebanese coast did not respond to a request to change direction before contact was cut, the Lebanese transport minister said on Tuesday.

He said it was too early, however, to draw any conclusion of pilot error.

Ghazi Aridi said the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737-800 plane made a sharp turn before disappearing off the radar early Monday. A few minutes later the plane plunged into the sea with 90 people on board, all of whom are feared dead.

"The control tower asked him to go in a certain direction, but the pilot was not responsive, then communication was cut off and the plane disappeared off the radar," Aridi told Reuters.

"We don't know why he did that or what happened," he said. It was important not to jump to conclusions of pilot error until the data recorders were found to determine what happened.

Lebanese and international search teams, including a U.S. naval vessel as well as European and U.N. peacekeeping ships, helicopters, planes and divers scoured the Mediterranean coast for the victims and missing flight recorders.

Flight ET409 was carrying mostly Lebanese and Ethiopian passengers and was headed to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

The plane apparently broke up in the air before crashing into the sea during a thunderstorm in a ball of fire before dawn on Monday.

BLACK BOXES

Lebanese lawmaker Mohammad Qabbani, who met airport officials, said the pilot was responding 'yes' to the control tower's orders to change direction but continued to move in the opposite direction.

Information Minister Tareq Mitri, speaking after meeting ministers and security officials on Monday night, said there had been no reason to stop the plane departing and that other planes had been landing and taking off before and after it.

Lebanese officials said 14 bodies, including those of two toddlers, had been recovered so far. The body parts of another victim were also retrieved.

Recovery teams pulled out a segment of the plane's wing that had the plane's red, yellow and green colors emblazoned on it.

Rescue services were combing a search parameter 10 km (6 miles) out to sea and 20 km (12.4 miles) long for the plane's fuselage. Sonar equipment on navy vessels was being used to detect the wreckage.

"They need to pinpoint the location of the wreckage and then launch a dive there," the official said, to find data recorders.

Ethiopian Airlines chief executive Girma Wake said he believed search teams would manage to locate the flight recorders, commonly referred to as black boxes.

The eight-year-old plane last underwent a maintenance check on December 25 and no technical problems were found.

Most of the Lebanese passengers, 54 in total, were Shi'ites from the south with business interests in Africa. Black flags were draped on poles along a main road in Tyre, a port city. One Lebanese victim, identified by the passport still in his pocket, was buried near Tyre on Tuesday.

The last fatal incident involving Ethiopian Airlines was in November 1996 when a hijacked Boeing 767 crashed off the Comoros Islands, killing 125 of the 175 passengers and crew.

(Additional reporting by Nadim Ladki in Beirut and Linda Muriuki and Njuwa Maina in Addis Ababa; Editing by Charles Dick)

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