Recovery effort continues after UN helicopter crash in Sierra Leone kills 24
The UN-operated Russian Mi8-MTV slammed into a hillside Tuesday morning en route from the capital Freetown to the forested town of Yengema, just a few minutes before it was due to land.
Yengema, some 220 kilometers (130 miles) from the capital Freetown, is home to a Pakistani military contingent which is helping to ensure security in the diamond-rich region near the border with Liberia.
Fourteen Pakistani peacekeepers were aboard the helicopter, manned by three Russian crewmembers, along with several African employees of the UN mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) and aid workers.
The Pakistani military told AFP from Islamabad that the victims included six officers -- three lieutenant colonels, a major and two captains -- and eight soldiers from the more than 3,800 Pakistanis deployed under the five-year-old mission to restore peace in Sierra Leone after a decade of civil war.
Defense Minister Rao Sikandar Iqbal expressed "deep shock and grief" over the tragedy.
"We honor them by remembering their sacrifice for a great cause; and they have honored us by making the ultimate sacrifice," the foreign ministry said.
Helicopters routinely shuttle supplies, equipment and other materials to the impoverished area.
UNAMSIL spokeswoman Sheila Dallas declined to provide further details of the passenger list.
Witnesses say the crash site continued to smoulder Wednesday, with trees felled by the force of the crash sending sparks and smoke wafting overhead.
In the absence of a passable road in the area, all assistance is being brought to the crash site on foot after helicopters ferry recovery workers and supplies from the capital.
Igor Blinov, a spokesman for UT Air, the charter company servicing UN troops in the region, told Russia's NTV television that the chopper fell on its side, causing a fire in the surrounding woods.
The charter company's director was expected in Sierra Leone on Wednesday to head an investigation into the crash.
"We are not excluding any possibilities as to why our helicopter crashed," the spokesman was quoted Tuesday as saying by the Interfax news agency.
"We are absolutely confident that the helicopter was completely airworthy, and in the high professionalism of the crew."
Condolences have poured in to the UNAMSIL headquarters in Freetown.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan issued a statement extending his "deep condolences to the families and governments of those who have perished in this tragedy," paying tribute to "the men and women who have lost their lives in the name of peace in this and other important peacekeeping operations."
Tuesday's accident was the second fatal crash of a UN helicopter in Sierra Leone. Seven people were killed in November 2001 when a helicopter bound for Lungi International Airport crashed into the sea shortly after takeoff.
UNAMSIL, which at its peak included some 17,000 peacekeepers, is in a draw-down phase to a planned total of some 3,000 Ghanaian, Pakistani and Nigerian troops by January 2005.
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Received by NewsEdge Insight: 06/30/2004 11:33:02
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