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Army helicopter escorting Musharraf crashes

/ Source: The Associated Press

One of three helicopters escorting President Gen. Pervez Musharraf crashed in Pakistan's portion of Kashmir on Monday, killing four soldiers on board, but the president was unhurt, officials said.

Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad blamed a "technical fault" for the crash of the military helicopter and said Musharraf had already reached his destination when the accident occurred.

The crash revives concern about the safety of the U.S.-allied general who has survived several assassination attempts. It happened two days after he secured a provisional victory in a controversial presidential election.

Musharraf traveled to Kashmir on Monday to commemorate the second anniversary of Oct. 8, 2005, earthquake that killed nearly 80,000 people. The helicopter crashed in Mujhoi, about 12 miles south of Muzaffarabad, the main town in Pakistan's portion of the disputed Himalayan territory.

Musharraf's spokesman among injured
The president's spokesman, Rashid Qureshi, was among several passengers who were injured. He suffered a burned right hand but was in stable condition, officials said.

Hundreds of residents and scores of soldiers swarmed around the still-smouldering helicopter wreckage, 100 yards from the Jhelum River. Part of the chopper's tail jutted above the crowd. At least four ambulances, sirens wailing, left the scene carrying injured people.

Abbas Gardezi, a local journalist, said he saw the helicopter hit the ground, and then explode into flames. The weather was sunny and clear.

The helicopter was one of three taking Musharraf and others to Muzaffarabad for quake commemorations, said a senior army official speaking on condition of anonymity because was not authorized to comment to media.

Arshad said only that an army helicopter made a crash landing in the Jhelum Valley due to a technical fault while en route to Muzaffarabad. "Four troops died and some were injured," he said.

Arshad said the president had reached some other area when the chopper went down. He declined to say how close Musharraf had been to the crash.

"The president was in some other chopper and he safely reached where he had to go," he said.

Arshad said officials were still checking the identities of the dead and injured.

Crash comes at sensitive time
Security was tight in Muzaffarabad on Monday morning, restricting residents' movement around the city in anticipation of the arrival of a VIP visitor. Military officials later said that Musharraf was in the city, which lies about 60 miles northeast of the capital, Islamabad.

Helicopter accidents are not uncommon in the rugged Kashmir region, but the crash came at a sensitive time.

Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, swept a presidential election by lawmakers on Saturday that was boycotted by most of the opposition because he contested the vote while still army chief. Musharraf has to wait for a Supreme Court ruling on his eligibility to find out whether he will win a new five-year term.

Musharraf has promised to quit the military and restore civilian rule before beginning the new term in which he has vowed to step up the fight against Islamic extremism.

His nominated successor, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, was promoted Monday to the post of vice-chief of the army and is to take the top job as soon as Musharraf vacates it.

Under the Pakistani constitution, the chairman of the Senate, or upper house of Parliament, takes over if a sitting president dies.

The country's previous military ruler, Gen. Zia-ul Haq, died in an unexplained explosion on board a Pakistani military aircraft in 1988 along with U.S. Ambassador Arnold L. Raphael and several other top generals.