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Seven dead after test flight crashes off French coast

An Air New Zealand Airbus A320 aircraft crashed into the sea off France's southwest coast during a test flight on Thursday, killing all seven people on board, authorities said.

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French rescue workers have given up hope of finding survivors from the Air New Zealand Airbus A320 jet that crashed into the Mediterranean sea during a test flight, an official said Thursday.

The jet crashed in the sea near the French city of Perpignan from where it had taken off, and emergency services said that while two bodies had been recovered, another five people were still missing.

But Dominique Alzeari, assistant prosecutor at Perpignan, told reporters there was "no hope of finding survivors", and the search was halted for the night.

The wreckage was spread over several hundred metres (yards), a regional government official told AFP.

The jet, built in 2005, had been leased to German charter firm XL Airways since 2006. Airline spokesman Asger Schubert said the two pilots in the jet were German and worked for XL Airways Germany.

The regional prefecture said the five other people on board were New Zealanders.

A major rescue operation was launched with a surveillance plane, two rescue helicopters and five coastguard vessels scouring the seas around the crash site about 3.5 nautical miles (6.5 kilometres) from the shore.

About 20 specialist frogmen were taking part in the operation.

The French navy sent ships to the zone in a bid to find the wreckage and find the black box flight recorders.

They were due to halt their activities at 11:30 pm (1030 GMT) and resume on Friday morning, said officials.

The jet had been undergoing servicing at EAS Industries in Perpignan and had been flying circuits for 90 minutes before it crashed, an emergency services spokesman said.

Six French aviation accident investigators and two from Germany were being sent to help an inquiry with experts from the French civil aviation authority (DGAC) and Airbus.

In Auckland, Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe told reporters that the Air New Zealand Airbus A320 aircraft, on lease to XL Airways of Germany for the last two years, was due to be handed over to Air New Zealand in Frankfurt.

"On board that aircraft was one Air New Zealand captain and three Air New Zealand engineers, along with one New Zealand CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) inspector," Fyfe said.

The crash occurred 29 years after the crash of an Air New Zealand DC10 into Mount Erebus in Antarctica on November 28, 1979. All 257 passengers and crew on the sightseeing flight were killed in the crash.

Airbus said it delivered the jet in July 2005 and it had carried out 2,800 flights with about 7,000 hours of use since then. The constructor gave no details of the accident.

There are about 3,700 A320 jets in service with almost 3,000 more to be delivered.

Service accidents are quite rare. An Airbus A340 crashed on November 15, 2007 at Toulouse-Blagnac airport causing three serious injuries.

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