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7 missing, 2 reported dead in chopper saga

A cloud of uncertainty hovers over the rugged terrain of Mt. Kenya forest as the search efforts to recover a missing crew of seven soldiers involved in a helicopter crash continues to be hampered by bad weather.

On Sunday evening, three MI-24 combat helicopters on the way to Baidoa, in Somalia, crashed in the Mt Kenya ranges, leaving behind a trail of unanswered questions.  The helicopters were to support ground troops battling the al-Shabab militants in a country that has not had a stable government in 20 years.

Only one MI-17 utility helicopter landed safely in Garisa, Kenya. The junior minister for Defence, Gen Jeje Odongo, told a news conference at the ministry of Defence yesterday that he was making a preliminary statement with a heavy heart.

“The crash site indicates that one plane was burnt,” Odongo said. “All the other crews are safe except for a crew of seven, which is still missing. One of the other crews was found and they have all been evacuated to Nanyuki.”

Asked about the number of the dead, Odongo responded, “We are making efforts to reach the families of those missing and we want to be factual and sensitive as possible, so we appeal for calm as we continue to search for our comrades.”

The commander of Land Forces, Lt Gen Katumba Wamala, who flanked Odongo at the news conference, said only one of those rescued yesterday had been admitted with backache. He added that they were still assessing the health conditions of the others. Kenya’s Standard newspaper yesterday reported that at least two bodies had been recovered at one of the scenes of the crash while five soldiers were rescued and flown to Kenya’s military base in Laikipia for first aid.

The bodies are yet to be removed from the scene, a pilot involved in the rescue operation confirmed to the Standard. He would, however, not divulge much because he was not authorised to speak to the media. One aircraft was found hanging on a cliff while another was badly burned, the military official said.

Kenyan television news stations throughout yesterday carried footage of a helicopter burnt to ashes and another seriously damaged. Whereas the accident continues to spawn conspiracy theories and contradictory tales, Odongo told journalists that the cause of the accident was bad weather, according to a preliminary report.

Intelligence Brief, a US-based security website, says it’s possible the UPDF pilots violated the flight path and lost communication with the main radar and radio managing the flight.

“Possible scenarios may have caused the unprecedented events, including violation of the operations security, tracked flight protocol,” the website said.

It is also not clear how many soldiers were aboard each helicopter. Odongo said each helicopter carried seven soldiers while some news reports in Kenya claimed each plane carried eight.

Odongo said he would not respond to conspiracy theories, although he did, to some extent, by ruling out allegations of sabotage on the part of Kenya, Uganda allies in the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom).

“I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Kenyan forces for their quick response,” he said.

Odongo revealed that the Commander-in-Chief, Gen Yoweri Museveni, had appointed a probe committee chaired by his brother, Gen Salim Saleh, to investigate the crash. The committee also has retired Brigadier Andrew Lutaaya as well as Col Ramadhan Kyamulesire. The UPDF had spent three and a half months meticulously preparing for the mission, Odongo explained.

“The helicopters were inspected by the UN and found to be airworthy. The crew underwent UN training and they all passed the competence tests,” he added.

“Our Air-force personnel worked with their Kenyan colleagues to plan the routing and logistics within Kenya. Thus, the route approved was Soroti, Eldoret, Nanyuki, Garisa, Wajir and then Baidoa.”

On the question of insurance, Odongo said army equipment was “rarely insured.” He added that it would not be Amisom responsibility to compensate Uganda because the helicopters did not crash in battle in Somalia.

The cost of an overhauled Russian-made MI-24 helicopter ranges from $200,000 - $500,000.

According to Kulayigye, the attack helicopters that crashed were first deployed in 2003 to undertake operations against the Lord’s Resistance Army.

In 1997, the government purchased four junk helicopters from Belarus at a cost of Shs 11bn. Gen Salim Saleh was found to be complicit in the transaction but Museveni said he had confessed and returned the money, so he was pardoned.

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