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Foreign Envoys Killed in Pakistan Copter Crash

  • Ayaz Gul

A Pakistani helicopter carrying foreign and local dignitaries crashed into a school in the far north of the country Friday, killing at least seven of the 19 people on board, officials say.

The dead include ambassadors to Islamabad from the Philippines and Norway, and wives of envoys of Malaysia and Indonesia.

The crash occurred as the Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter was being flown from the mountainous northern town of Gilgit to the nearby Naltar valley.

The Pakistani military says the two pilots and another member of the five-person crew are among the dead. Officials say there were no children in the army-run school when the copter crashed.

Pakistan's Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry expressed grief for the incident.

“It was an unfortunate accident due to some technical fault in the engine of the helicopter when it was approaching the landing site," he said. "The whole leadership of Pakistan, the nation of Pakistan is deeply grieved and deeply saddened on this unfortunate incident. The purpose of the whole visit was to showcase to the foreign ambassadors accredited to Pakistan the beauty of our northern areas.”

Chaudhry said the Indonesian ambassador has suffered 75 percent burns and is in “a critical condition” while the rest of the injuries are not life-threatening.

He said that doctors told him that the Polish envoy suffered from a “spine injury” and his spouse sustained “head injuries” while the Dutch ambassador suffered from leg and face burns and some head injury.

Ambassadors of Romania, Lebanon and South Africa were also on board.

The foreign secretary said that bad weather did not allow authorities to transport bodies and survivors back to Islamabad, hoping the task will be accomplished on Saturday.

He also rejected as “bogus” claims by the outlawed Pakistani Taliban that it had shot down the helicopter, noting the military deployed 1,000 troops to secure the entire area ahead of the high-profile visit.

“There were full arrangements of security in place," Chaudhry said. "Prime Minister (Nawaz Sharif) had given full instructions and they were being complied with. All the heights were occupied [by our troops]. This was a technical failure and unfortunately accidents do happen.”

Experts such as former air force senior officer Faaiz Mir say the area where the crash occurred is extremely difficult for helicopter flights.

“I have flown in this area in a helicopter so I am aware how hostile the terrain is," Mir said. "I am aware that the aircraft was on landing approach. It was close to landing when it started to spin. So, most probably it is a tail rotor malfunction.”

Chaudhry said his ministry organized the three-day excursion trip for heads of diplomatic missions of more than 30 countries and their family members .

Such visits, he said are routinely arranged “in consultation with the diplomatic corps” in Islamabad.

The helicopter was one of four aircraft carrying the foreigners and some Pakistani officials to the mountainous valley.

Prime Minister Sharif was also due to arrive in Naltar to inaugurate a newly installed chair lift at the valley's ski resort and the diplomats were invited to attend the event.

The crash prompted Sharif to cancel his trip and return to Islamabad where he announced Saturday as a national day of mourning.

A statement quoted him as expressing “deep grief and sorrow” over the crash and conveying his “heartfelt” condolences to the bereaved families.

VOA's Urdu Service contributed to this report

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