The burnt wreckage of two Ugandan army helicopters was found Tuesday, two days after crashing in a remote mountainous region of Kenya while flying to war-torn Somalia, army officials said.
“The aircraft have been found but they are all burnt,” a senior Kenyan military official said. “We do not know the fate of the crew.”
Kenyan army spokesman Bogita Ongeri confirmed the aircraft had been found.
“The helicopters were sighted by a fixed-wing aircraft somewhere around Mount Kenya,” Ongeri said, adding that officials would release more information later in the day. “The rescue efforts are ongoing.”
There was no news of the reported 10 servicemen onboard the two helicopters.
Uganda Air Force experts and the Kenya Defence Forces had early Tuesday continued to search for the two missing helicopters and their military occupants.
The team was led by air force chief of staff Brig. Moses Rwakitarate and Kenyan military officers from the Lakipia Airbase.
Sources had said the team moved to support an evacuation mission at Nanyuki Airstrip.
Seven officers, who were rescued from the helicopter which crash-landed in bad weather on the slopes of Mt. Kenya, have since received first aid at the airstrip.
According to press agencies, Ben Simpson, a private pilot of Tropic Air, and the first person to respond to the SOS call, took it upon himself to salvage the soldiers in the ill-fated helicopter.
“The chopper crashed in the southern part of Mt. Kenya and all the seven people on board are alive, but the captain has serious back injuries. The chopper’s body is badly damaged, but the engine is intact. The propellers’ shafts are gone,” Simpson told journalists at Nanyuki Airstrip after delivering four of the seven soldiers.
Though weary, the rescued officers, clutching their AK 47 rifles and still in their uniforms, looked confident and happy to be alive.
Four combat helicopters, including three Mi-24s and one Mi-17, had taken off from Soroti on Sunday to Eldoret on the way to Somalia to assist African Union forces fighting al-Qaeda-linked Shabaab insurgents.
They landed at Eldoret and later left for Nanyuki, where they were scheduled to refuel before flying to Garissa.
“The pilots landed safely in Nanyuki at 4:00pm and headed for Garissa, where they were expected to land at 6:00pm,” UPDF spokesperson Maj. Felix Kulayigye said.
“One of them (Mi-17) landed successfully in Garissa, but there was no trace of the other three (Mi-24),” he said.
“The two helicopters had not been seen. I think there were five people in each,” Kulayigye added.
But other sources said 14 soldiers were aboard the two choppers.
Kulayigye ruled out attacks by al-Shabaab and possibilities of foul play on Kenya’s part.
He warned against speculation. “Kenya’s airspace is safe. No one can shoot our helicopters in Kenya,” Kulayigye said, lauding the Kenya Defence Forces for spearheading the rescue operations.
The Russian-made Mi-24 is used as an attack helicopter, but can also carry up to eight passengers.
Initially the helicopters were feared to have crashed or made emergency landings in the dense forested foothills of snowcapped Mt. Kenya, Africa’s second highest peak at 5,199 metres (17,057 feet).
Wild animals, including elephants, leopards and rhinos, prowl the forests, about 110 kilometre (70 miles) north of the capital Nairobi.
In 2007, after a helicopter crashed in a similar area, it took rescue teams eight days to track down the pilot, who had survived by eating leaves and drinking his urine.
Uganda has 6,500 troops of the 17,000-strong African Union Mission in Somalia, but this is the first time it was to deploy helicopters.
The air force would provide aerial escort for convoys and reconnaissance operations along the supply routes.
They would also be used for medical evacuation, air search and rescue as well as aerial combat against the al-Shabaab in Mogadishu.