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Crashes underscore Uganda's spotty record with helicopters

Wednesday, August 15, 2012
By Jeffrey Gettleman and Josh Kron

Uganda People's Defence Air Force (UPAF) personnel are seen next to a Somalia-bound Ugandan Mi-24 attack helicopter that crashed at Mount Kenya, August 13, 2012. Rescuers have spotted the bodies of two Ugandan military airmen at the wreckage of one of three attack helicopters that came down high on the slopes of Mount Kenya on Sunday, a mountain rescue leader said on August 14, 2012. Picture taken August 13, 2012. REUTERS/Peter Greste

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Ugandan soldiers are gearing up for a major offensive in Somalia and have vowed to crush Islamist insurgents.

But in the past few days, the Ugandans have discovered another nemesis: the fog-shrouded slopes of Mount Kenya.
On Tuesday, search-and-rescue crews discovered the wreckage of two more Ugandan military helicopters that had smacked into Mount Kenya en route to Somalia. That means three of the four Ugandan helicopters that took off Sunday evening from a Ugandan airfield crashed before ever coming close to the battlefield.

An ensuing goose chase for the missing helicopters had Ugandan and Kenyan authorities following tips around Kenya, with authorities at one point even saying two of the helicopters had landed safely on a rural highway before the wreckage of the second and third was discovered near where the first one was found.

Uganda has a spotty record with helicopters, having been accused by international investigators of buying junk helicopters at inflated prices. In 2005, Uganda supplied a presidential helicopter to John Garang, the charismatic southern Sudanese guerrilla leader who was the embodiment of hope for millions of people and had just been installed as vice president of Sudan. Mr. Garang was killed when the Ugandan helicopter he was using ran into a mountain.

Asked about all this Tuesday, Col. Felix Kulayigye, a Ugandan military spokesman, said he was "shocked" by questions about the maintenance record of Uganda's air force under the circumstances. "Should we be embarrassed about an accident?" he retorted.

Still, many outside analysts say the loss of the three attack helicopters, all Russian-built Mi-24s, is a serious blow to Uganda's fledgling air force and will definitely delay the African Union's plan to assault Kismayo, a Somalian harbor town and the last major stronghold of the al-Shabab Islamist militant group.

For five years, the Ugandan military has been leading the African Union's effort to pacify Somalia, a country mired in chaos and warfare since its government collapsed 21 years ago. The Ugandans have absorbed hundreds of casualties but have soldiered on, steadily eliminating al-Shabab fighters and freeing up large tracts of territory for Somalia's transitional government to assert itself -- which it has yet to do.

The al-Shabab, who have terrorized Somalia for years, chopping off hands and killing hundreds with suicide bombs, are now down to one last large redoubt, Kismayo, a crucial source of money and weapons.
The plan had been for Uganda to provide air cover and for Kenyan and Somali forces to attack from the ground. The African Union had said it was going to start the attack within a week, which may be why the four Ugandan military choppers were sent aloft Sunday.

On Tuesday evening, Kenyan officials declared the rescue operation over. Seven Ugandans were rescued Monday from Mount Kenya when the first crash site was discovered, and eight more Tuesday morning from a second crash site not far away. Kenyan officials have said the third copter was badly burned, and that two bodies were removed from it, with five people missing and presumed dead.

Mount Kenya is a 17,000-foot towering mass in central Kenya, and the path to the peak is dominated by swamps, vertical bogs and nearly impenetrable jungle. The mountain creates its own unpredictable weather system, and sometimes there are even blizzards along its slopes.

Most analysts believe that the three helicopters crashed after they tried to fly through rough weather; the fourth, a bigger Mi-17, made it safely to a base in northern Kenya.

In Kampala, Uganda's capital, several people seemed unfazed by the crashes. "It is now common knowledge that our army often has junk equipment because someone tried to gain from buying cheap stuff," said Allan Brian Ssenyonga, a marketing and media development trainer. "Hearing that the planes have crashed is not shocking, except for those who are related to the victims involved."


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