From: Gopal Sharma, Reuters
Published September 26, 2006 12:00 AM

All 24 Aboard WWF Helicopter Killed in Nepal

KATHMANDU — All 24 people on board a helicopter chartered by conservation group WWF in Nepal were killed after the aircraft crashed in bad weather two days ago, officials said on Monday.


The wreckage of the Russian-made helicopter was found earlier on Monday by a Nepali army team after incessant rains and fog had hampered rescue efforts.


The army helicopter found the crashed aircraft about 2 km southwest of Ghunsa, a village in Taplejung district, about 300 km (190 miles) east of the capital, Kathmandu.


"There are no survivors," Purushottam Shakya, who coordinates rescues from Kathmandu airport, told Reuters.


Officials said the helicopter was found broken into pieces. Plans were being made to recover bodies and more helicopters were being sent to Taplejung, they added.


Some rescuers had also reached the site by land.


"There were 24 people on this helicopter, including 7 staff of WWF," WWF Director-General James Leape told Reuters television at WWF headquarters in Gland, Switzerland.


"All together it represented some of the most important leadership of the conservation movement in Nepal, and certainly many of the leaders of the WWF's efforts in Nepal and elsewhere. It is a huge loss for this organisation but also for conservation in Nepal and of course for the families of these 24 people," he said.


Of the 20 passengers and four crew, 17 were Nepalis. Others included a Finnish diplomat, two Americans, a Canadian and a Swiss-Australian, as well as two Russians.


Nepal's junior forest minister, Gopal Rai, his wife, Finnish Charge d'Affaires Pauli Mustonen, and the deputy director of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Nepal, Margaret Alexander, were among those on board.


Other passengers were conservationists working for the WWF and two Nepali television journalists. The passengers had attended the handover of a WWF project to the local community and were on their way back.


LOUD NOISE


The bodies would have to be carried for two hours to Phere, the nearest point where helicopters could land, said another rescue official at Kathmandu airport.


"Bodies have been found. Only one body is in a better shape and can be recognised. Pieces of bodies are scattered over a steep slope near a gorge," he said.


But more bad weather slowed plans to shift the bodies.


Heavy rains, fog and strong winds forced helicopters to abandon flights to the mountainous region, said Hem Nath Dawadi, district administrator of Taplejung.


"Rescue workers are collecting the bodies on the spot. They will be picked up by helicopters when the weather improves," Dawadi told Reuters. "But this is not possible today."


The area, located above 3,500 metres (11,480 feet), is very remote and with few villages. The rugged landscape is dominated by gorges.


The helicopter left Ghunsa village at about noon (0615 GMT) on Saturday but never arrived at its destination in Taplejung town, a 20-minute flight.


Officials said on Sunday villagers had reported hearing a loud noise in a gorge soon after the helicopter left Ghunsa, a region that is home to Mount Kanchenjunga, the world's third-highest peak at 8,586 metres (28,169 feet).


Eighteen people, including 13 Germans, were killed when a commercial plane crashed in the hills of western Nepal in 2002.


Himalayan Nepal, home to Mount Everest, has a poorly developed road network and many tourists and officials travel by helicopters or small planes to remote mountainous areas.


Source: Reuters


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