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U.N. helicopter crashes in Sierra Leone

A U.N. helicopter flying from the west African capital of Sierra Leone to a provincial city crashed Tuesday, killing all 24 people on board, a U.N. spokesman said.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A U.N. helicopter crashed in flames on a remote hillside in Sierra Leone on Tuesday, killing all 24 peacekeepers, aid workers and others on board.

U.N. mission spokeswoman Sharon McPherson said victims aboard the Russian-made Mi-8 also included the Russian crew.

A passenger manifest made available to The Associated Press said the passengers included 14 Pakistani peacekeepers and a Pakistani police officer, and travelers from several African countries.

Others on the manifest were a U.N. volunteer from Ghana, three Sierra Leone citizens, a Tanzanian working for the International Red Cross and one Ugandan.

Authorities offered no immediate explanation for the accident, which left the wreckage in flames on a hillside in the West African country.

The United Nations has about 11,800 peacekeepers in Sierra Leone, overseeing the newly peaceful country’s peace accord after a vicious 1991-2002 civil war. Fighting stopped by 2002, and there have been no known attacks on U.N. officials since.

Radio contact lost
The helicopter had taken off from the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown with 21 passengers and three crew, said Daniel Adekera, also U.N. spokesman.

The ultimate destination was the western city of Kailahun, after a stop in Yengama, near some of the main diamond fields in mineral-rich Sierra Leone.

Ground crews lost radio contact, and sent out a search crew within seven minutes, Adekera said.

A farmer near the village of Massabendu Junction, in the area of the crash, told the AP he watched the flight’s last seconds.

“I saw this aircraft coming down and it hit a tree and it burst into flames,” said Komba Missa. “I was scared, and I ran into town to tell the police chiefs and others.”

The crash site was just southeast of Yengema, U.N. and Sierra Leone aviation officials said.

The wreckage and victims were in remote, hard-to-reach bush area covered in red dirt and thick undergrowth. War has left communities nearby in ruins, with few roofs left on huts.

U.N. recovery teams had to use a second helicopter to reach the area, U.N. associate spokesman Marie Okabe said in New York.

They spotted the wreckage, still in flames more than an hour later, from the air, U.N. officials said.

Clearing a path to the wreckage
After landing and walking 1.5 miles, the searchers reached the crash site. They found no survivors.

Villagers by late in the day were helping clear brush to open a path to the site, Missa said.

Helicopters are the main method of transport cross-country in Sierra Leone, where sound roads are few. The white-painted U.N. helicopters lift off frequently from a helipad in the U.N. missions headquarters in Freetown, ferrying peacekeepers, relief workers and supplies.

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s office said the United Nations had opened an investigation into the crash.

“The secretary-general extends his deep condolences to the families and governments of those who have perished in this tragedy,” a statement released by Annan’s office said.

“He once again pays tribute to the men and women who have lost their lives in the name of peace in this and other important peacekeeping operations.”

Thirty-one countries have peacekeepers in Sierra Leone, including Britain, the country’s former colonial ruler, according to the U.N. mission’s Web site.

Bangladesh, Pakistan and West African nations are among the top contributors of troops.

The U.N. Security Council approved the U.N. mission in October 1999. Until Tuesday, a total of 137 U.N. personnel had died in Sierra Leone, including many killed in attacks during fighting.

In 2001, another Mi-8 used by the United Nations crashed in Sierra Leone, killing eight people.

Sierra Leone’s war pitted government forces against an insurgency fighting to gain control of the government and of diamond fields. Forceful military intervention by neighboring Guinea, Britain and the United Nations helped crush the rebels by 2002.