A jetliner clipped a building during takeoff and crashed into the sea off the West African nation of Benin on Thursday, killing at least 82 people, most of them Lebanese on their way home for the holidays, the transport minister said.

At least 24 people survived the crash, Transport Minister Ahmed Akobi said.

There were fears the death toll would rise as rescue workers searched the cold waters just offshore into the night, with spotlights set up along the beach. Just after midnight, at least 15 bodies and the plane's cockpit lay on the beach.

Divers and fishermen swam through scattered pieces of luggage, clothes and gift-wrapped presents, while tractors tied chains to the engine and other debris from the plane, in an effort to clear away the wreckage.

It was unclear how many people were on the chartered Boeing 727 plane. Akobi said there were 156 passengers and an unknown number of crew members, while an official in Cotonou with the charter company, Union des Transports Africains, said 253 people were on board.

The flight originated in the Guinean capital, Conakry, and stopped in Freetown, Sierra Leone, picking up Lebanese along the way, and was bound for Beirut, Lebanese Transportation Minister Najib Mikati said.

There was no word on what caused the aircraft to strike the building. Authorities shut down the Cotonou airport until Friday as a precaution, Akobi said.

The Boeing 727 lifted off at 2:55 p.m. Thursday from the airport in Cotonou, Benin's commercial capital, and disaster immediately followed, said Jerome Dandjinou, a senior airport security official.

"The back of the plane hit a building at the end of the runway. There was a fire and an explosion was heard," Dandjinou said. "The plane exploded and the debris fell into the water." The Atlantic Ocean is about 500 yards from the airport tarmac.

Dozens of bodies could be seen floating among the plane's wreckage about 150 yards off a Cotonou beach.

Television images showed pieces of the plane lying in the surf: a shorn-off landing gear, part of a wing, the cockpit and the rear part of the fuselage, along with an engine.

Tangled wires and metal hung from the ripped-open fuselage. One man sat in the sand, blood running down his bare chest. Another injured man held his head.

One of the Lebanese survivors, Nabil Hashem, told Al Manar television in Beirut that he was in the back of the plane and was able to swim to safety.

"Those in the front were the most hurt," Hashem said. "May God's mercy fall on them. It was a horrible scene."

Martin Chobli, a doctor with the emergency medical service, said at least 57 bodies had been taken to a hospital morgue, and "we are receiving reports that more bodies are coming out of the water."

He said the army, the paramilitary police and the Red Cross all had rescue teams at the scene.

The president of Benin, Mathieu Kerekou, also visited the crash site.

Thousands of Lebanese immigrants live and work in West African countries. Most of the passengers on Thursday's flight were believed to be returning home for the Christmas holidays.

"This is a catastrophe that touches every house in Lebanon and every Lebanese," Jean Obeid, the Lebanese foreign minister, told reporters at Beirut airport.

Guinean officials said some Sierra Leone and Guinean nationals were also aboard the plane, but it was not known how many.

Mohammed Khazen, a brother of one of the businessmen who chartered the plane, was weeping when reached by phone in Beirut.

"Six people from my family -- including nephews -- are on the flight and I have no information about them," he said.

Three families gathered at the arrival lounge at Beirut's airport. Some wept; others prayed to God to spare their loved ones.

Zeina Shemaytelli clutched her 3-year-old daughter and wept as others tried to calm her down.

A video image shows people injured in the crash of a Boeing 727 passenger plane shortly after it took off in the West African country of Benin.