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Fiery Crash Kills Togolese Sports Minister, Football Fans


Top sports officials from Togo have died in a helicopter crash after a football match in Sierra Leone. Phuong Tran has more from VOA's West Africa bureau in Dakar.

The only survivor of Sunday's fiery crash is one on the pilots. Witnesses said the more than 20 other people on the helicopter, most of them from Togo, were burned beyond recognition. Togo's national sports minister, Atipe Kwako, is believed to be among the dead.

Helicopter and ferry are the only way to reach the Freetown airport, which is located across a bay from the capital. The Togolese had been in Sierra Leone for an African Nations Cup qualifier match between Togo and Sierra Leone, which Togo won, 1-0.

An airline maintenance officer at the Sierra Leonean airport said the helicopter caught fire shortly before landing. He says Paramount Airlines owned and operated the Russian-made helicopter.

Togolese journalist Modeste Messavussu says most people are in shock because football is more than a sport for the Togolese.

He says football is what has slowly reunited a country divided since the presidential election in 2005 that brought President Faure Gnassingbé to power.

That year, thousands of Togolese fled violence between the ruling and opposition parties. Human rights organizations reported widespread repression, a media blackout, and beatings that left more than 50 dead.

"The football is like a reconciliation [sport]," said Messavussu. "They [Togolese] forget all their political problems and everybody is happy. They forget all the [political] problems. Because of that, everybody is crying today."

No members of the Togolese football team were on board the downed helicopter. They were waiting for the next airport shuttle. The journalist says the team will now fly home on a plane chartered by the Togolese government.

Spokesman Gahoum Hegbor says the Togolese government has launched an investigation into what caused the crash.