French authorities have tonight called off searching the Alps where a passenger plane crashed with 150 people on board, including 16 schoolchildren, two babies, and two teachers.
Lt Col Simon-Pierre Delannoy of the regional police rescue service told French media that the conditions for the search had become too difficult, as helicopters stopped flying over the area at nightfall.
The complex search operation is expected to resume tomorrow morning, he said.
There were no survivors from the 144 passengers and six crew after the plane went into an eight-minute descent before crashing near Digne.
The aircraft, operated by low-fare carrier Germanwings, was on its way from Barcelona to Dusseldorf when it crashed this morning on a mountainside near Meolans-Revels and the popular Pra Loup ski resort.
The pupils, from Joseph Konig school in Haltern am See in western Germany, were flying home after a week-long exchange with students at a school near Barcelona.
Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said their thoughts were with the families of the passengers.
The schoolchildren had been on an exchange involving the Institute Giola in Llinars del Valles near Barcelona. The Spanish children in the exchange are still in Germany.
Haltern’s mayor Bodo Klimpel said classes at Joseph Konig were suspended when news of the disaster came through, but that the school would be open as normal tomorrow when there would be a special event at morning assembly.
German chancellor Angela Merkel and various French ministers travelled to the crash site in a remote area.
Those on board the first helicopter to land near the site confirmed there were no survivors, with witnesses describing how the plane had disintegrated with no piece of wreckage bigger than a car.
Germanwings said the captain on board was experienced and had been with the airline and its parent company Lufthansa for more than 10 years and had clocked up 6,000 flying hours on this Airbus model.
Germanwings said the plane had a normal service at Dusseldorf yesterday and its last major check-up had been in summer 2013.
There was confusion about whether a distress signal was sent from the aircraft, with even Germanwings unsure.
A spokesman for the French civil aviation authority said the plane did not send a distress signal.
He said the plane lost radio contact at 10.30am local time but “never declared a distress alert itself”.
He said it was the combination of loss of radio contact and the plane’s descent that prompted the control service to declare a distress.
Mr Cameron’s official spokesman said the Prime Minister had been informed of the crash and “would wish to express how his thoughts are very much with the families and friends of all of those aboard”.
He added that the Foreign Office was making inquiries about whether any British nationals were on board, but had no information at this stage.
He said UK air accident investigators would offer any assistance requested by French or German authorities.
Spain’s King Philip VI and Queen Letizia officially cancelled their state visit to France after they were told about the crash by French prime minister Manuel Valls.
It is thought many Germans on board were tourists who had been visiting Barcelona and Palma in Majorca. There were also reports that two Australians and some Turks were on the flight.
French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the plane’s black box had been found.
Actually orange in colour, the black box comprises the cockpit voice recorder, giving investigators insight into pilots’ conversations just before the crash, and the flight data recorder which shows how the workings of the plane were operating.
Brendan O’Neal, chairman of British airline pilots’ association Balpa, said: “The UK pilot family stands with our German colleagues in this tragic moment.
“Our first thoughts are with the loved ones of the passengers, pilots and crew.”
He went on: “It is too early to say what caused a reliable aircraft with a good safety record, modern technology and an experienced crew to crash.”
Speaking at a media conference in Barcelona, a Lufthansa spokeswoman said the plane had been due to take off from Barcelona at 9.35am local time today but actually departed at 10.01am. It had been due to land in Dusseldorf at 11.55am local time.