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Copter Crash May Hinder Offensive in Somalia

A Ugandan military helicopter crashed on Mount Kenya, about halfway between Uganda and Somalia, on Monday.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

NAIROBI, Kenya — The Ugandan military has shifted heavy weaponry, including assault aircraft, into 
Somalia over the past few weeks, vowing to strike a final and decisive blow against the ShababIslamist militant group.

But on Monday, Ugandan officials said that of four military helicopters that took off from Uganda for Somalia on Sunday, only one made it to a refueling stop in Kenya. Another plunged into the thickly forested slopes of Mount Kenya, about halfway between Uganda and Somalia, where the Kenyan authorities rescued seven Ugandan crew members. The two other copters might have also crashed somewhere in Kenya. On Monday evening, the authorities still did not know exactly what had happened.

Uganda’s military spokesman, Col. Felix Kulayigye, said, “We have unconfirmed information about the other two, that they did indeed have a hard landing along the highway to Garissa,” a town in northern Kenya.

The Ugandans have taken the lead of an African Union peacekeeping force that has steadily battered the Somali militants who are down to one major stronghold, Kismayo, a port town, which the African Union plans to attack soon. The botched flights seemed to bode ill for the planned offensive on Kismayo and were a reminder of the woes of Uganda’s fledgling air force.

In 2005, John Garang, the charismatic southern Sudanese rebel leader, was killed when the Ugandan military helicopter he was riding in crashed into a mountain.

In the 1990s, Uganda wound up buying what turned out to be “junk helicopters” in a scandal that cost the government millions of dollars, according to a World Bank file. A military journal said that a number of Uganda’s Mi-24 attack helicopters — the type that crashed on Mount Kenya — are “nonoperational.”

And just last year, witnesses said a Russian fighter jet bought by the Ugandan air force crash landed at the Entebbe airport in Uganda, though the authorities played down the accident.

On Monday, when asked about this record and the missing helicopters, Colonel Kulayigye said, “An accident is an accident.”

The first Ugandan troops landed in Somalia in 2007 to a barrage of mortar shells, and since then the Ugandans have taken hundreds of casualties, making this mission one of the bloodiest of recent peacekeeping history.

Still, the Ugandans, joined by Burundians, Djiboutians and smaller contingents from other African countries, have chipped away at the Shabab, a brutal Islamist insurgent group that is considered both a regional menace and an international threat, with possible cells in the United States and Europe.

Josh Kron contributed reporting from Kampala, Uganda, and Reuben Kyama from Nairobi.
Source: New York Times


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