Death toll climbs to 22 in Sierra Leone helicopter crash

Updated: 2007-06-05 04:48

Twenty-two people were killed when a helicopter ferrying a group of Togolese soccer fans exploded into flames near the Sierra Leone airport, officials said Monday.

The government of Togo has sent a six-person delegation to help with the investigation into Monday's crash, after a majority of the dead were identified as Togolese soccer fans who had come to cheer their team's 1-0 victory over Sierra Leone at an African Cup of Nations qualifying match on Sunday.

The charred remains have been transported to the state mortuary, where autopsies will be conducted once a pathologist from Togo's government arrives, said Sierra Leone's State Pathologist Owiss Kamara.

News of the accident sent the tiny West African country of Togo into mourning. Togolese radio stations broadcast solemn funeral songs every 30 minutes, and President Faure Gnassingbe called for flags to fly at half-mast.

But the grief was mixed with anger, and many Togolese called for an investigation into the crash after a Togolese soccer official in Lome reported receiving an SMS message from one of the crash victims saying he and other fans had been threatened in Freetown.

Winnie Dogbatse, president of a Togo soccer club, told a Lome radio station that the text message sent before the man boarded the helicopter described Sierra Leoneans, angry at having lost the game, allegedly made death threats against the Togolese soccer fans.

Helicopters and a sea ferry are the only ways to get to the airport, located across a bay from the capital, Freetown, which is on the Atlantic Ocean.

In 2001, a U.N. helicopter traveling from U.N. headquarters in Sierra Leone to the airport crashed into the bay, killing all seven aboard. The U.N. said at the time a mechanical problem appeared to have been the cause.

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