Rift over Air France crash victims after body disintegrates

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Attempts by a French team to recover up to 60 bodies from a crashed airliner three miles below the South Atlantic have deepened a rift among the victims' families, who are torn over the final resting place of loved ones.

The first body from the wreckage of Air France Flight 447, finally located last month after two years of fruitless searches, was raised to the surface on Thursday. A private note to families of victims from a French government official admitted the remains – almost intact when discovered still strapped into a seat – had disintegrated during the journey to the surface.

The Airbus A330 was flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris when it plunged into the sea on 1 June 2009, killing all 228 people on board. Some French relatives say the recovery operation is "macabre" and victims should rest in peace.

But Brazilian and Portuguese relatives, and some French ones, want the bodies to be recovered to permit them to have Catholic funerals and burials in sanctified ground. Several French families are split down the middle. Many bodies have been shown in footage filmed by a robot submarine to be virtually intact. But experts say the bodies have been preserved, as fragile "waxworks" by the extreme cold, darkness, water pressure and lack of fish life. They are likely to crumble if moved.

In a trial operation on Thursday, a remote-controlled submarine with robot arms lifted a body to the surface. But the body disintegrated in warmer water. According to an account given to the newspaper Le Figaro by pathological experts and search officials, the fatty tissues of the bodies have probably been transformed by the cold and dark into a form of "soap" or wax. They are brittle and cannot stand exposure to warmth, light or movement.

A score of bodies were found floating in the ocean soon after the crash, the cause of which is still unclear. Up to another 60 more are thought to be strapped into their seats in the main fuselage, which was located last month. The French government says that all of the bodies must be recovered. Examining magistrates are conducting a criminal investigation into possible manslaughter and also want remains to be recovered for autopsies.

Many families of French victims have opposed recovery from the beginning. The president of the French AF447 victims' association, Jean-Baptiste Audousset, said details of the condition of the remains made the operation even more "traumatic" for some relatives. He sai d the crash site, 800 miles from Brazil's coast, should be undisturbed, as an "ocean grave". But he acknowledged that many relatives, especially in Brazil and Portugal, felt differently.

A Frenchman whose daughter was a victim told Le Figaro: " I want to recall my daughter as she was, rather than receive a sack of remains or a tiny coffin."