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Sierra Leone Grounds Commercial Helicopters

Sierra Leone President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah late Tuesday grounded all commercial helicopters and suspended the country's transport minister, and the director of civil aviation and his deputy. The president’s action followed the explosion Sunday night of a helicopter that was ferrying Togolese soccer fans and sports officials to the country's main airport following an African Cup of Nations soccer match in Freetown. The Togolese Minister for Youth and Sports was among those reportedly killed in the crash.

Septimus KaiKai is Sierra Leone’s minister of information and broadcasting. He told VOA the magnitude of the helicopter crash played a major role in President Kabbah’s decision ground all commercial helicopters.

“What happened is that over the weekend, a helicopter company by the name of Paramount Air (reportedly owned by a Nigerian businessman) had one of its helicopters crashed over at Lungi International Airport, and the fatalities are quite a bit. Twenty-one people lost their lives, and it’s in connection with this that the president has decided that in the interest of the safety of the people of Sierra Leone and the general public who fly into Freetown and use the helicopters to come into the city that it was wise for us to ground the helicopters to allow some investigation to take place before allowing them to fly again,” he said.

Paramount Airlines, reportedly owned by a Nigerian businessman, is one of the few carriers operating helicopter flights between Freetown and Lungi International Airport.

Minister KaiKai said the Sierra Leone government is aware of the airlines’ spotty maintenance record.

“What we do know is that on two different occasions in January of this year, the same company - that is Paramount Airlines - had the same problems. One, it was claimed that a bird had flown into the engines and caused disturbance to the flight. And secondly, the second one in which the flight was aborted. And on those grounds, the government decided at that time to ground Paramount Airlines. But because of the sensitivity attached to flights, we decided at one time or the other to ask the International Civil Aviation Organization to inspect the fleet of Paramount Airlines, and that was done,” KaiKai said.

Kaikai elaborated on why President Kabbah also suspended the country's transport minister and the director of civil aviation and his deputy.

“We have also instituted a panel to look into the crash of the helicopter from Lungi International Airport to make sure that people will not cast aspersion on whatever recommendations come out of the committee’s investigation, it was deemed appropriate at this time to temporarily relieve the minister of transport and communication, the director of civil aviation and his deputy of their duties until the investigation is complete,” he said.

Because Sierra Leone lost the African Cup of Nations soccer qualifying match to Togo, some have suggested a conspiracy theory in the crash of the helicopter.

Kaikai said the Sierra Leone government cherishes the longstanding relations between the two countries and wants to get to the bottom of what caused the crash.

“What we have assured the Togolese people is that as far as we know, there’s no conspiracy involved. And that is why we have suspended Paramount Airlines and any other helicopter company that is flying in Freetown to make sure that we get to the bottom of this matter, Kaikai said.