4 June 2007

Sierra Leone/Togo: Helicopter Crash Kills at Least 19

A Paramount Airlines helicopter in Sierra Leone crashed Sunday, reportedly killing at least 19. The helicopter was carrying passengers from an African Cup of Nations qualifying match where Togo won 1-0 in Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital, to the airport.

Richard Attipoe, Togo's minister of sport, is among the dead. The World Aeronautical Press Agency reports the helicopter "developed mechanical problems and its engines failed" before it crashed. The Ukranian pilots both jumped from the aircraft before it crashed, but only one survived, the agency said.

A river separates the city of Freetown from the airport. For many years, the sparcity and unreliability of transport between the capital and the airport has been a bottleneck. Aging helicopters and frequently out-of-service ferries and hovercraft have been the only way to avoid a several-hour detour to a land crossing of the Sierra Leone River that separates Lungi Airport from Freetown. President Kabbah had pledged that he would build a bridge to connect the capital to the airport by the end of his term this year - a goal which is far from being realized.

Paramount Airlines, owned by a Nigerian businessman, is one of the few carriers operating helicopter flights between the city and the airport. The air carrier is banned in the EU; however, outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair used its services during his recent visit to Sierra Leone.

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