Missing Ugandan helicopters found, crew still missing

NAIROBI (Reuters) – Rescuers have located the last two missing Ugandan military helicopters that crash-landed in central Kenya on their way to Somalia, the Kenyan defense ministry said on Tuesday, but the whereabouts of the crew is still unclear.

Three Ugandan helicopter gunships disappeared off radar screens as they navigated around the southern edge of Mount Kenya in bad weather on Sunday.

Rescue teams found one of the Russian-made attack helicopters and airlifted its seven-strong crew from the mountain’s forested slopes on Monday.

Emergency teams found the wreckage of a second helicopter hanging from trees in forest 11,000 feet above sea level, Kenya’s Department of Defence spokesman Bogita Ongeri said.

The third military aircraft has been spotted from the air and appears partially burnt.

“We are very optimistic that the occupants may be alive,” Ongeri said.

Two days after the helicopters crash-landed, Kenyan and Ugandan military officials remain tight-lipped over whether mechanical failures or the weather was to blame.

A Somalia-bound Ugandan attack helicopter is pictured at Mount Kenya, August 13, 2012. Uganda said on Monday the pilot and four crew of the helicopter that made an emergency landing in Kenya had been rescued but two other gunships and ten crew members wer

Rescuers said the crash site reached on Tuesday had been abandoned with no sign of any bodies. Baggage stood neatly stacked near the crash site suggesting surviving crew members had retrieved items from the wreckage, and then possibly departed in an attempt to make their way to safety.

Uganda’s army spokesman Felix Kulayigye said the number of missing crew has been revised to 14, up from the previously cited 10.

A fourth helicopter, an Mi-17 transporter, landed as scheduled in the eastern Kenyan town of Garissa, a major base for Kenya’s military operations inside neighboring Somalia.

Ugandan troops form the backbone of an African Union peacekeeping force (AMISOM) battling Somali rebels aligned with al Qaeda. It was sending the four helicopters to Mogadishu to add to its firepower there, AMISOM spokesman Ali Houmed said.

Photographs showed the Mi-24 that was found on Monday lying nose down and on its left side with at least one of its rotor blades snapped.

Kenya’s military has been criticized for its slow rescue response to the crashes, but Ongeri said persistent fog around Mount Kenya was hindering rescue efforts.

(Reporting By Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Richard Lough and Jon Hemming)