Flight 4U 9525 crashed this morning in a remote and mountainous area of the Alps near the village of Barcelonette after making a mysterious eight-minute descent from its cruising height of 38,000 feet. The Airbus A320 aircraft – carrying 144 passengers and six crew – belonged to Germanwings, the low-cost subsidiary of German airline Lufthansa.

It is believed that a party of 16 schoolchildren and two teachers were among 67 German victims of the tragedy. It has also been confirmed that there were 45 Spaniards on the doomed flight.

French president Francois Hollande said that “the conditions of the accident, which have not yet been clarified, lead us to think there are no survivors.” German chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters: “This is the hour in which we all feel deep sorrow.”

Germanwings managing director Thomas Winkelmann told a press conference in Cologne that the aircraft had reached its cruising altitude of 38,000 feet at around 10.45am local time. However, just a minute or so later it had entered a rapid eight-minute descent.

“The aircraft’s contact with French radar, French air traffic control, ended at 10.53am at an altitude of about 6000 feet,” said Mr Winkelmann. “The plane then crashed.”

Rescuers now face a difficult and hazardous job to salvage the wreckage of the aircraft – which is said to have disintegrated completely over a wide area –  and the bodies of the victims. Finding the black box flight recorders will also be vital to the investigation which is now under way.

The plane which crashed was 24 years old, but was serviced by Lufthansa engineers only yesterday. It is not believed that the pilots of the jet put out a mayday emergency distress signal.