A Ugandan parliamentarian says his country's national assembly will look into the helicopter accident that killed Sudanese first vice president and former rebel leader John Garang nearly two weeks ago. Mr. Garang was returning to Sudan after an official meeting in Kampala when the Ugandan presidential helicopter carrying him went down in bad weather. Some critics say government negligence may have contributed to the tragedy. The government of Uganda denies the charge.
Parliamentarian Aggrey Awori of the opposition People's Progress Party in Uganda says several parliamentary bodies on which he sits will investigate the crash. He listed the Committee on Presidential and Foreign Affairs, the Committee on Defense and Internal Affairs and the Committee on Works, Housing and Communications, which he says looks into civil aviation issues.
Mr. Awori says his concern is that the Ugandan government may have violated the regulations of its own Civil Aviation Authority, or CAA, in letting the MI-172 presidential helicopter take off in poor weather in the late afternoon.
"They took off after hours, definitely. According to CAA regulations, no rotor aircraft, [like a] helicopter, can take off after 5 pm for any destination lasting more than one hour. [Also]..if you have aboard a head of state,…the weather forecast should be up-to-date before take-off and if you are expecting any changes in the [area] you are flying, that should be taken into consideration. It was a bad combination of flying at night and bad weather, [a combination which a pilot would not normally undertake]," he said.
The Ugandan parliamentarian says under normal procedures, there should have been continual contact between the aircraft and the CAA control tower. Ugandan aviation officials should also have alerted Sudanese authorities of the incoming craft, at which point Sudan would have also begun tracking it. Mr. Awori says he is not sure these conditions were met.
He says the CAA also should have advised the pilot to turn around much earlier once radar detected poor weather. And he says Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni should have advised his guest to stay in Kampala, or to cut short their mid-afternoon meeting so Mr. Garang could arrive home before nightfall.
Mr. Awori said he had suggested replacing the executive helicopter, which was eight years old, but the state comptroller said it would be too expensive.
The government denies any wrongdoing. It says the helicopter was recently upgraded, and provided with new altimeters and weather radar. Another piece of new equipment was designed to identify terrain features and an audio warning when the helicopter approaches mountains. The vehicle reportedly hit a cliff near an SPLA stronghold in southern Sudan.
Uganda's information minister, James Nsaba Buturo, says his government is investigating the crash.
"I've just finished addressing the Uganda press and the main issue we have been concerned about are people with no evidence whatsoever coming up with different versions of what happened," he said. "We have consulted others and set up a team of international investigators working alongside our own investigators to try and look into the circumstances of this national disaster… We are convinced these teams, which are independent, will come up with the true story."
Parliamentarian Aggrey Awori says this is not the first time an air disaster has changed the course of politics in the region. Eleven years ago, a plane carrying the presidents of Burundi and Rwanda crashed upon landing in Kigali, Rwanda, sparking a genocide that killed up to a million Tutsi and moderate Hutu.
"We drew the attention of the Ugandan government to that incident. The heads of state [of Burundi and Rwanda] left Arusha [Tanzania] after hours, which was also irregular. That is why we must pay more attention to procedures especially in a volatile area like the Great Lakes, where there is fighting across the border. These things may appear little, but people should pay attention to them. Even with Uganda, … we hope and pray things will come to a conclusion [in a way] that will not make things difficult between [Uganda and Sudan]," added Mr. Awori.
President Museveni was expected to attend the funeral of Mr. Garang last Saturday but did not. Information Minister James Nsaba Buturo said the president was too devastated to attend.
"He didn't go to Juba but to a town called Yei in southern Sudan, where he paid his respects. Mind you, the president was in a unique position: He had lost a personal friend [in his own personal aircraft] along with some of Uganda's best pilots. He was particularly touched and emotional about this matter. He felt that paying his respects in this town were quite adequate and there was no need at all to go to Juba," said Mr. Buturo.
Referring to the accident while in Yei, President Museveni said he could not rule out that the accident was due to other causes. He told mourners "Some people say it may be an accident… or it may be something else." Uganda's independent Monitor newspaper noted the Ugandan official at the Garang funeral handed a message to Sudanese officials noting that both countries have suffered under attacks by the Uganda-based rebel "Lord's Resistance Army."
But UN special envoy to Sudan Jan Prank told reporters the most likely reason for the accident was bad weather, poor visibility and pilot error.