By By TOM ODULA and RODNEY MUHUMUZA
MOUNT KENYA, Kenya (AP) – Rescue teams found two dead bodies and searched for at least seven soldiers and airmen on Tuesday after the crashes of three Ugandan helicopter gunships on Kenya’s highest mountain, a rugged landscape where leopards and elephants roam.
Five survivors found on Tuesday had spent two nights on the mountain in sub-freezing temperatures.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni ordered an investigation into the crashes to be led by his brother – a retired army general – in a sign of how serious Ugandan authorities are taking the loss of lives and aircraft that had been dispatched to Somalia to help fight al-Qaida-linked militants.
Neither Kenyan nor Ugandan authorities could yet say why three of four military helicopters making the trip crashed. Ugandan officials said preliminary information indicated that bad weather was responsible.
Mount Kenya – Africa’s second-highest peak – has been shrouded in clouds even as rescuers tried to locate the wreckage from Sunday’s crashes. Hope dimmed that the seven personnel who were unaccounted for would survive a third night on the mountain.
“At that altitude if you are injured, if you are not warm enough, chances are that you might be killed of hypothermia,” said Simon Gitau, deputy warden of Mt. Kenya National Park.
He added a note of optimism: “Soldiers are strong people and are always prepared with rations and clothing.”
The helicopters crash landed between 2 kilometers and 5 kilometers apart (1.2 miles and 3 miles apart),” Gitau said.
One point to be investigated will be whether the pilots took the wrong flight path. Concerns were raised in Uganda that the well-trained crew flew too close to Mount Kenya. A Ugandan official insisted that there was nothing wrong with the helicopters.
“They were inspected… and found to be airworthy,” Jeje Odongo, Uganda’s deputy minister of defense, said of the Russian Mi-24 helicopters. Odongo said that all the crew had been trained by the U.N. and that “they all passed the competence tests” before flying out of Uganda.
Odongo said the trip to Somalia had been planned three months in advance and that the aircraft has been used over the years for missions, including the hunt for the notorious rebel leader Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army.
In Kenya, Gitau said rescue workers saw two bodies outside of one helicopter that crashed and burned. He said he did not know if other bodies were inside the wreckage.
“We did not search through the wreckage because it was still burning and smoldering,” Gitau said.
Five personnel were rescued from a second crash site discovered on Tuesday, Gitau said. A third Ugandan military helicopter that crashed was found on Monday and the occupants rescued. No one was killed in that crash that wrecked the chopper beyond repair and only one injury was reported.
The search-and-rescue teams reached one of the crash sites Tuesday at around 12,000 feet up Mount Kenya, said Brigadier Francis Ogolla, the commander of Kenya’s Laikipia Air Base near Mount Kenya. He told a press conference that the other helicopter was spotted from the air at the edge of a cliff.
The unexplained crashes will set back efforts by a multinational African force to battle Islamist militants. The militant group, al-Shabab, is linked to al-Qaida.
Ogolla said the helicopters had taken off in formation from Laikipia Air Base at around 4:50 p.m. on Sunday en route to the northern Kenya town of Garissa, where the helicopters were to refuel before proceeding to Somalia. One hour later only one helicopter landed in Garissa and the pilot said he had lost communication with the other three, Ogolla said.
Weather around Mount Kenya- Africa’s second tallest peak at 5,199 meters (17,057 feet) – can be erratic. Heavy clouds and wind would be common this time of year, with precipitation coming in the form of rain or snow.
The three helicopters that crashed were Mi-24 gunships. The fourth helicopter that landed safely was an Mi-17.
The U.N. Security Council in February approved funds for nine transport helicopters and three attack helicopters to be used by African Union forces in Somalia. The AU troops have been fighting al-Shabab for years without the use of helicopters. The Ugandan military forms the bulk of the African Union forces in Somalia.
Ugandan and Burundian forces pushed al-Shabab out of Mogadishu about a year ago. Helicopters will further aid their counterinsurgency efforts.
Kenya and Burundi have also dispatched to troops to fight al-Shabab, which neighboring countries view as a regional threat. The Islamist militants are now concentrated in the southern coast town of Kismayo, which is likely to be the next scene of serious fighting.
Somalia has not had a stable government since 1991, when longtime dictator Siad Barre was ousted by warlords who then turned on each other.
AP reporter Jason Straziuso contributed to this report. Muhumuza reported from Kampala, Uganda.
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