NAIROBI, Kenya - Rescue teams searching for survivors in the aftermath of the crashes of three Ugandan helicopter gunships on Kenya's highest mountain found two dead bodies on Tuesday and were searching for at least seven soldiers and airmen in a rugged landscape where leopards and elephants roam.
Simon Gitau, deputy warden of Mt. Kenya National Park, said rescue workers saw two bodies and helped rescue five other people from one of two downed helicopters on Mount Kenya.
A third Ugandan military helicopter that crashed was found on Monday and the occupants rescued. The helicopters were bound for Somalia to join the fight against a Islamist militia group linked to al-Qaida.
The search-and-rescue teams reached one of the two Ugandan helicopters that crash-landed Sunday 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. A rescue team was headed to the site, though bad weather and rugged terrain were hampering its progress.
Three out of four military helicopters that left Uganda on Sunday went missing in Kenyan airspace. One of the missing helicopters, with seven people on board, was found near Mount Kenya on Monday. No one was killed in that crash and only one injury was reported.
Maj. Gen. Julius Karangi, Kenya's military chief, told Parliament Tuesday that the helicopter found Monday was destroyed beyond repair. Of the two helicopters found Tuesday, one was completely burned and the other was hanging by a cliff. Karangi said that efforts were under way to retrieve survivors from those two crashes.
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.
The cause of the three crashes has not been established. Weather around Mount Kenya— Africa's second tallest peak at 5,199 metres (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.
Col. Felix Kulayigye, a Ugandan army spokesman, said Monday that officials are investigating the crashes. Kulayigye said that one of the helicopters made an emergency landing and that the other two had hard landings.
He said the two aircraft that crashed on Mount Kenya were Mi-24 helicopter gunships. Kulayigye said that the Ugandan military received "unconfirmed reports" from Kenyan officials that there were no fatalities involved. The helicopter found Monday was also an Mi-24, a Russian helicopter frequently called a Hind. 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. 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 neighbouring 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.