Seven dead, one missing, two survive French helicopter crash off Gabon coast

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Monday, January 19, 2009

The Foudre - Le TCD Foudre à quai à l'arsenal de Toulon (avril 2002).

Officials say that a French military helicopter with 10 French soldiers, including four crew members and six Special Forces paratroopers, has crashed off the coast of Gabon in west central Africa.

The Eurocopter AS 532 Cougar ditched shortly into the Atlantic Ocean after leaving a French naval ship, about 50 kilometres off the coast. Seven French soldiers were killed, two were rescued, and one is still missing, according to a statement issued by President Nicolas Sarkozy's office.

"Today, the wreckage of the helicopter was located at a depth of 35 metres and searched. Unfortunately, we must report the deaths of five other soldiers. A final soldier remains missing. Searches are continuing," the statement explained.

According to Libreville Lieutenant Colonel Pascal Carpentier, the ill-fated helicopter crashed Saturday night at 8:08 p.m. (1908 GMT) into Atlantic waters off Nyonie, a small town located between Gabon's capital Libreville and the town of Port-Gentil. It was taking off from the amphibious assault ship La Foudre's naval landing craft transporter cruising 50 kilometers (30 miles) off the Gabonese coast, during a joint training exercise, said Lieutenant Colonel Francois-Marie Gougeon, spokesman for the general staff.

A French army Eurocopter AS 532 Cougar helicopter from the landing zone at the Kabul Military Training Center in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 15, 2007.

The ship "set off the alert and arrived at the crash site with rescuers who picked up the injured crew within half an hour. The sea was calm and the wind low at the time of the crash but the night was very dark," Lieutenant Gougeon explained, adding that "search operations will naturally continue all night." La Foudre, two helicopters and oil giant Total S.A.'s three vessels, including its sonar and underwater robot joined the rescue effort of the salvage team.

"Divers were deployed to locate the wreckage," said Captain Christophe Prazuck, spokesman for the army general staff. "At daybreak we will deploy all our means, planes, helicopters, boats... to take part in the search," said Gabon's Interior Minister André Mba Obame.

Meanwhile French President Nicolas Sarkozy directed Defence Minister Hervé Morin to travel to the crash site. Sarkozy had "asked that all available means in the area be immediately deployed to find the soldiers who were aboard." Morin later announced there would be two probes, a judicial one and another by the French defence ministry, with the assistance of French gendarmes and an air accident expert.

Satellite image of Gabon, generated from raster graphics data supplied by The Map Library.

Minister Morin arrived in Libreville on Sunday and met with President Omar Bongo to discuss rescue efforts for the missing body of one of the seven soldiers. "The cause of this tragedy remains unknown. It may be natural or human, or a combination of both." Morin said. "Divers were inspecting the Cougar, which was in water 35 meters (about 115 feet) deep. We will do everything we can to find the last person missing," he added.

Morin viewed rescue efforts on La Foudre, and visited friends and relatives of the missing at Camp DeGaulle. The French soldiers were "permanent personnel in Gabon who knew the region well," said General Claude Reglat, Gabon commander of French forces. "The six others were commandos who had arrived from the French army's elite 13th Regiment of Dragon Paratroopers. We have expressed our compassion and solidarity to the families," he added. “This type of helicopter does not have a black box. So the flight was not recorded, nor were the voices in the cockpit. So some elements will remain unknown,” Claude Reglat also noted.

The January 17-21 bilateral manoeuvres called 'Operation N'Gari' involved 600 French soldiers and 120 Gabonese troops maneuvering in the military drill known as Baptise Ngeri. The soldiers were backed by Cougar and Fennec helicopters to coordinate maritime safety operations with UN peacekeepers at Bouna airport, in the Ivory Coast. In the joint exercise soldiers were to be parachuted onto predetermined targets including Nyonie.

Gabon, a former French colony, hosts one of four permanent French bases in Africa. Gabon is a country in west central Africa sharing borders with the Gulf of Guinea to the west, Equatorial Guinea to the northwest, and Cameroon to the north, with the Republic of the Congo curving around the east and south. According the FFG which has around 1,000 troops in Gabon, the French Forces in Gabon (FFG)'s role is "to assure the safety of the 12,000 French residents in the country in case of threat, and carry out aid missions."


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