NAIROBI, Kenya, Aug 16 – Rescuers have now resolved to pitch tent in Mount Kenya Forest in search of five Ugandan soldiers who went missing Sunday when their helicopter crashed and caught fire.
Military Spokesman Bogita Ongeri told Capital FM News that the operation is involving personnel from the Kenya Defense Force (KDF), Police, Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and crew from private helicopter operators Tropic Air and ALS.
“The team went back to the forest this (Thursday) morning and they are carrying out the search; they have not been able to find any of the five soldiers,” Ongeri said.
The rescue operation, he said, was being hampered by heavy rains which are making it difficult for the operation to proceed uninterrupted.
“The weather is really bad and keeps changing, but they are determined to continue with the search. They will pitch tent there for three days,” he said.
Ongeri said rescuers are concentrated on the wreckage of the helicopter which is still smoldering for search of bodies and neighbouring areas of the forest to try and see if they survived and escaped.
“Four days after the helicopter crashed, it is still burning but the rescuers are able to access the site,” he said.
Bodies of two of the soldiers were flown to Nairobi and are preserved at the Forces Memorial Hospital mortuary awaiting transportation to Uganda. A third body which was found on Wednesday is yet to be retrieved from the crash site.
Ugandan authorities have identified the two Air Force pilots who perished in the crash as Capt. William Letti and Lt Patrick Nahamya. The third soldier has not been identified.
Letti and Nahamya were in control of helicopter no AF 806, Mi-24 which went down in the dense forest on Sunday.
A source has told Capital FM News that the operation will be called off after three days when it will be concluded that the soldiers were burnt when their helicopter crashed.
Two other helicopters carrying fifteen soldiers crashed within the same area but they did not catch fire and all their crews have already been evacuated back to Uganda.
Five soldiers who were in the burnt helicopter remain unaccounted for.
“At the site where a helicopter crashed and caught fire, the forensics personnel are supposed to help establish if there are any more bodies or body parts other than the three found on Tuesday and Wednesday,” a military officer said Tuesday.
There are slight hopes, however, that the five missing soldiers may have survived the crash and walked off the crash site just like their eight colleagues who were found eight kilometers away from their helicopter wreckage that crashed and failed to explode on impact.
“We are not ruling out any possibility at this point, but we are prepared for anything that is why we have a team searching for them in the forest and another group of experts assessing the wreckage,” the officer who is involved in the operation but has no express mandate to brief the press, said.
He said the experts would also examine the scene to establish if there are dangerous explosives or rifles because the Ugandan soldiers were headed for war in Somalia with heavy artillery.
Seven other soldiers were rescued from their helicopter wreckage on Monday.
Ugandan authorities have said the three Ugandan military aircraft may have crashed due to bad weather as they headed to Somalia on Sunday to reinforce AMISOM forces in their push for Kismayu.
“Preliminary information suggests that it was weather to blame,” Jeje Odongo, Uganda’s State Minister for Defence, told reporters, without offering more information.
Only one helicopter made it to Garissa for a scheduled refueling en route to Somalia.
Kenya has pledged to cooperate with Ugandan authorities to thoroughly investigate the cause of the multiple helicopter crashes that killed at least three soldiers and left 15 others wounded.