Air Algérie Flight AH5017, which reportedly crashed in Mali after changing its flight path to avoid heavy storms, was carrying Mariela Castro — niece of retired Cuban President Fidel Castro and daughter of Cuba’s current president, Raul Castro, news agencies reported Thursday.
UPDATE 2 PM Eastern Time: Mariela Castro has confirmed that she was not on board the downed plane. “I’m alive, happy and healthy,” she told Venezuelan television. “Maybe the media that published that news needed a bit of publicity, but here I am.”
The Air Algérie flight was on its way from Ouagadougou, the capital of the western African country of Burkina Faso, to Algiers, Algeria. According to Jean Bertin Ouedraogo, Burkina Faso’s transportation minister, the plane’s pilots radioed to report heavy rains about 21 minutes after taking off, and asked to alter the plane’s flight path.
About 29 minutes later, the Air Algérie plane disappeared from radar.
An Algerian official confirmed to the Reuters news agency that the plane did indeed crash, but offered no details or speculation as to the cause or location of the disaster, or whether there were any survivors among the 116 on board.
Mariela Castro, the 51-year-old daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro, was among the passengers now missing and feared killed in the crash, according to a Facebook post by the Ouagadougou Airport.
ABC News also reported that Mariela Castro, a prominent activist for gay rights in Cuba and director of the Cuban National Center For Sex Education, was among those on board the ill-fated Air Algérie flight.
Mariela Castro is the mother of three children, two with her current husband, Italian businessman Paolo Titolo, and a daughter from her first marriage, to Chilean revolutionary Juan Gutiérrez Fischmann.
She is known as a leading advocate of AIDS prevention measures as well as for LGBT human rights in Cuba. Mariela Castro was the leading force behind a 2008 Cuban law allowing transgender individuals to receive gender reassignment surgery free of charge, and allowing their genders to be changed for legal purposes.
The reports that Mariela Castro was on the Air Algérie plane have not been independently confirmed.
A French official told The Associated Press Thursday morning that French fighter planes have located the plane’s wreckage near the city of Gao in Mali. There were reportedly 51 French nationals on the Air Algérie plane.
While Mali has recently been the site of an upswing in Al Qaeda terrorist activity, including a suicide bombing earlier this week that claimed the life of a French soldier, French officials said they did not believe that terrorist groups in the area had the capability to shoot down the Air Algérie plane.