Rescuers find two bodies in Ugandan copter wreck

Reuters News
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Posted: Aug 14, 2012 7:16 AM
Rescuers find two bodies in Ugandan copter wreck

By Drazen Jorgic and Richard Lough

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Rescuers have spotted the bodies of two Ugandan military airmen at the wreckage of one of three attack helicopters that came down high on the slopes of Mount Kenya on Sunday, a mountain rescue leader said on Tuesday.

The three Ugandan Mi-24 helicopter gunships disappeared from radar screens as they navigated around the southern edge of Mount Kenya in bad weather on their way to reinforce African troops battling Islamist militants in Somalia.

Uganda said early indications were the weather was to blame and that an enquiry into the incident would be launched.

"The helicopter is badly damaged and an operation is underway to recover the bodies. One body has been flung clear of the cockpit, the other is still trapped inside," Simon Gitau, senior warden at the Mount Kenya National Park and a mountain rescue leader, said.

Ugandan troops form the backbone of an African Union (AU) peace keeping force (AMISOM) battling Somali rebels aligned with al Qaeda. Kampala was sending the four helicopters to Mogadishu to add to its firepower there, AMISOM spokesman Ali Houmed said.

The AU force is preparing for a planned assault on the al Shabaab stronghold of Kismayu, the nerve center of the militants' southern operation during a five year insurgency to overthrow the Western-backed Somali government.

Rescue teams found the first of the stricken Russian-made attack helicopters on Monday and airlifted its seven-strong crew from the mountain's forested slopes after the pilot put out a distress call following an emergency landing.

Uganda's army spokesman Felix Kulayigye said on Tuesday there had been 14 crew flying in the two other helicopters.

The crew of one of those choppers had abandoned their "overturned" gunship, made radio contact with the Kenyan military and had been flown off the mountainside, Gitau said.

He said it appeared there were no other bodies in the blackened wreck of the third helicopter and that the fate of the remaining crew was unclear.

Two days after the helicopters crash-landed, it remains unclear why they were forced down. The weather around Mt. Kenya, Africa's second highest peak, can change quickly and heavy cloud, fog and strong winds are common at this time of year.

"Preliminary information indicates it's weather to blame. (the) weather on Mt Kenya can change within ten minutes," Jeje Odongo, Uganda's state minister for defense told reporters in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

Jeje said the crew had been U.N.-trained and preparations for the deployment had taken more than three months.

A fourth helicopter, an Mi-17 transporter, landed as scheduled in the eastern Kenyan town of Garissa, a major base for Kenya's military operations inside neighboring Somalia.

Photographs showed the Mi-24 that was found on Monday lying nose down and on its left side with at least one of its rotor blades snapped.

Kenya's military has been criticized at home for its slow rescue response to the crashes, but Ongeri said persistent fog around Mount Kenya had hindered rescue efforts.

(Additional reporting by Elias Biryabarema in Kampala; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Ron Askew)