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General News of Wednesday, 30 June 2004

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Ghanaian Volunteer among 24 killed in UN helicopter crash

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

Sharon McPherson, a spokeswoman for the UN mission, 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.

A Ghanaian UN volunteer was also aboard the helicopter carrying peacekeepers and died in the crash. The death is yet to be confirmed by authorities in Ghana.

Others on the manifest were a Bangladesh army major, three Sierra Leone citizens, a Tanzanian working for the International Red Cross and one Ugandan.

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

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 UN officials since the fighting stopped.

The helicopter had taken off from the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown with 21 passengers and three crew, said Daniel Adekera, also a UN 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," Komba Missa said. "I was scared, and I ran into town to tell the police chiefs and others."

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

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

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

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

After landing and walking 1 1/2 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 UN helicopters lift off frequently from a helipad in the UN mission's headquarters in Freetown, ferrying peacekeepers, relief workers and supplies.

In New York, UN 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 UN mission's Web site.

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

The UN Security Council approved the UN mission in October 1999. Until Tuesday, a total of 137 UN 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.

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