Twenty French police officers and a team from the aviation authority BEA were among experts due to arrive at the crash site in Gossi, near Mali’s border with Burkina Faso, on Saturday.
But the plane, which was flying from Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou to Algiers, disintegrated during the accident, apparently bouncing when it hit the ground, and the debris is barely recognisable.
"It is difficult to retrieve anything, even victims' bodies, because we have only seen body parts on the ground," General Gilbert Diendiéré, the chief of staff of Burkina Faso’s presidency. "Debris was scattered over an area of 500 metres which is due to the fact that the plane hit the ground and then probably rebounded.”
Gossi mayor Mossa Ag El Mouner visited the site on Friday.
“It was very, very difficult to find because it rained a lot,” he told RFI. “It is really a deserted area. There are no villages over there, except a site that was left abandoned by refugees who returned to Burkina Faso.”
He described a scene of devastation.
“Everything is burned,” he said. “There are some body parts. It is an unimaginable shock. Last night we did not eat any more. We give our condolences to their families, to the French people and to our friends in other countries that were victims of this disaster. We are very moved.”
There were 54 French nationals - some with dual nationality - 28 Burkinabés and eight Lebanese among the 118 people on board the flight.
Representatives of bereaved families from France, Burkina and Lebanon were flown to the site by helicopter on Saturday morning, although numbers were limited because of the restricted number of seats.
Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta also went to the scene, accompanied by a large delegation, to express “solidarity” with the victims’ families.
French President François Hollande was to meet families at 3.00pm, along with ministers including Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius and Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
Ten members of one French family and one family of four died in the crash.
Among grieving relatives at Ouagadougou airport Dramane Ouedraogo told RFI that he had lost seven members of his family.
Minister for Overseas French Fleur Pellerin, who was in Ouagadougou on Friday, said that no suspicious persons were on board and the Spanish pilots’ union, Sepla, said both the planes’ pilots were experienced, strengthening the theory that the accident was caused by weather conditions.
The plane’s two flight recorders were on the way to northern Mali’s biggest town, Gao, Hollande said on Saturday morning.