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Air France to Give Crash Victims $24,000 Advance

Air France said Friday it would give about 17,500 euros ($24,000) as an advance to the families of the victims of the crash of Air France Flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.

Remains of some of the 228 dead, and hundreds of pieces of wreckage reclaimed from the sea off Brazil are helping experts build a picture of what happened to the A330.

But much hope still is pinned on the relentless international search for the plane's missing flight recorders, which should provide vital data.

Air France chief executive Phillipe Gourgeon said Friday that finding them was the essential objective now.

In an interview broadcast Friday on RTL radio, Gourgeon also said, "We are going to be very focused on the first advance of about euro17,500 that is paid for each victim." He added that there were no strings attached to accepting the advance.

Air France also is looking into holding a memorial for all the victims of the May 31 crash, Gourgeon said.

Some families of French victims have accused Air France of a lack of sympathy and of failing to provide them with timely information on the investigation into the causes of the crash.

The airline's lawyers are contacting the families of the victims, from 32 countries, to make sure the advance money gets to them. Contacting them is no easy matter, Gourgeon said.

Sometimes the only contact number for a victim is from a mobile phone that was lost in the crash.

Searchers from Brazil, France, the United States and other countries are methodically scanning the surface and depths of the Atlantic for signs of the Airbus A330, which crashed into the sea off Brazil after running into thunderstorms.

Investigators are beginning to form "an image that is progressively less fuzzy," Paul-Louis Arslanian, head of the French air accident investigation agency BEA, said Thursday.

The investigation has focused on a flurry of automated messages sent by the plane minutes before it lost contact; one suggests external speed sensors had iced over, destabilizing the plane's control systems.

Arslanian said most of the messages appear to be "linked to this loss of validity of speed information." He said when the speed information became "incoherent" it affected other systems on the plane that relied on that speed data.

But he stressed that not all the automated messages were related to the speed sensors.

Air France has replaced the sensors, called Pitot tubes, on all its A330 and A340 aircraft, under pressure from pilots who feared a link to the accident.

French and U.S. officials have said there were no signs of terrorism, and Brazil's defense minister said the possibility was not considered. But France says it has not been ruled out.

More than 400 pieces of debris have been recovered from the ocean's surface, Arslanian said earlier this week.

He also called the search conditions -- far from land in very deep water -- "one of the worst situations ever known in an accident investigation."

Autopsies have revealed fractures in the legs, hips and arms of victims, injuries that -- along with the large pieces of wreckage pulled from the Atlantic -- strongly suggest the plane broke up in the air, experts have said.

Air France chief Gourgeon said Friday that the difficulties that had emerged in the exchange of information between representatives of BEA and Brazilian medical authorities conducting autopsies on recovered bodies were being resolved.

French-chartered ships are trolling a search area with a radius of 50 miles (80 kilometers), pulling U.S. Navy underwater listening devices attached to 19,700 feet (6,000 meters) of cable.

The black boxes send out an electronic tapping sound that can be heard up to 1.25 miles (2 kilometers) away, but these locator beacons will begin to fade in less than two weeks.

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