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24 die in Sierra Leone UN copter crash
Updated: 2004-06-30 01:32

A U.N. helicopter crashed in Sierra Leone on Tuesday, killing all 24 peacekeepers, aid workers and others on board, a U.N. spokeswoman in the West African nation said.

The victims aboard the Russian-made Mi-8 included three Russian crew members, U.N. mission spokeswoman Sharon McPherson said. There was no word on the nationality of the others killed.

There was no immediate explanation on the cause of the crash. Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency, citing aviation industry officials there, said the wreckage was in flames after the accident.

The United Nations has about 11,800 peacekeepers in Sierra Leone, overseeing the country's peace accord after a vicious 1991-2002 civil war. There have been no known attacks on U.N. officials since the end of fighting.

The helicopter had taken off from Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital, with 21 passengers and three crew members, said Daniel Adekera, another U.N. spokesman.

Passengers included peacekeepers and other U.N. personnel and aid workers and other civilians, Adekera said.

Its final destination was the western city of Kailahun. Ground crew lost radio contact, and sent out a search crew within seven minutes, Adekera said.

The chopper had crashed just southeast of the town of Yengema, near some of the main diamond fields in mineral-rich Sierra Leone, Sierra Leone civil aviation official Mohammed Bangura said.

The wreckage and victims were in a remote, hard-to-reach area of red dirt and brush.

U.N. recovery teams had to go by a second helicopter to reach the hills where the helicopter went down, U.N. associate spokesman Marie Okabe said in New York.

After walking 1 1/2 miles, the searchers found the crash site, with no survivors, Okabe said.

Helicopters are the main method of cross-country transportation in Sierra Leone, where there are few good roads. The white, dual-rotor U.N. helicopters lift off from a helipad at the U.N. mission's 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."

ITAR-TASS said the helicopter was flown under contract with the United Nations.

Thirty-one countries have peacekeepers in Sierra Leone, including Britain, the country's former colonial ruler, according to the 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 the war.

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

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