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U.N. helicopter crew in Somalia waited in vain for rescue before kidnapping


NAIROBI — The crew of a crashed United Nations helicopter in Somalia waited to be rescued for an hour before being kidnapped, two security officials in Mogadishu said Thursday, raising the question whether a faster response could have prevented their seizure.

The U.N. helicopter was on its way to evacuate wounded people from the town of Wisil when a mechanical problem forced it down on Wednesday. Nine people were on board: four Ukrainian crew members, two Kenyan nurses and an Egyptian working for a contractor who provides emergency medical evaluations. A Somali military doctor and a Ugandan protection officer were also on the aircraft.

All are missing and one is presumed dead after the helicopter came down in an area that is a stronghold of the Islamist insurgent group al-Shabab. The militant group is fighting the Somali government and its allies, including an African Union peacekeeping force, to impose a strict version of Islamic law, with punishments such as stonings, amputations and public lashings.

Somalia’s militant Shabab capture downed U.N. helicopter, at least 1 dead

The survivors are believed to be in the custody of the militant group. Neither the United Nations nor the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia, a peacekeeping force known as ATMIS, has released details of the incident beyond confirming that a helicopter went down.

According to a timeline provided by the two Mogadishu-based security officials and messages shared with The Washington Post, about an hour elapsed before the African Union peacekeeping force — which had another helicopter nearby — was notified that the U.N. helicopter went down. The reason for the delay was not clear.

The timeline reconstructed by The Post showed that the helicopter was an hour into its flight after refueling when the crew noticed unusual vibrations. An internal U.N. message later said something had hit a rotor; a message shared with The Post indicated that the tip of a blade had come off.

At around 1 p.m. local time, the crew decided to make an emergency landing, according to a message shared with The Post. Three other officials confirmed the rough timeline. The pilot, one official said, did an excellent job of controlling the spin and preventing a deadly crash. All the officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized the speak to the media.

At 1:10 p.m., the crew reported the incident to Mogadishu.

By 1:20 p.m. messages were flying back and forth about the possibility of a rescue flight bringing a new blade from the capital, Mogadishu. But even at top speed, it would have taken an Mi-8 helicopter 100 minutes to make the 250-mile trip, assuming there were no refueling stops. That would allow the crippled helicopter to move out of hostile territory, but the rescue helicopter would not have had enough fuel to get back to Mogadishu. Even reaching the nearest fuel depot in Beletweyne could have pushed it to the edge of its range.

The passengers made contact with Mogadishu again at 2 p.m., and after that call, the African Union peacekeeping force was informed of the incident and a request was made to pick up the crew, the two officials said. There was an African Union helicopter about 80 miles or 30 minutes away in the town of Wisil with enough fuel to reach the crash site. The plan was to fly with 20 Somali soldiers who could stand guard while repairs were made.

At 2:16 p.m., as the relief flight was getting ready to take off, one of the people at the downed helicopter told Mogadishu that four unidentified people had approached the site but had retreated when the security officer for the aircraft cocked his weapon.

In addition to the dangers in the lawless region from al-Shabab, clan militias and criminal gangs also operate there. They have previously kidnapped foreigners and sold them to the highest bidder.

One official expressed frustration that the A.U. flight had not left Wisil earlier, but another official said the flight had been readied as soon as possible and that the information about unknown people around the downed helicopter also raised the risk of losing a second helicopter.

At 2:34 p.m., someone at the landing site informed Mogadishu that armed men had captured five survivors from the landing site and that one person had been killed, according to notes shared with The Post. The Ugandan security officer and the Somali doctor evaded capture.

At 2:36 p.m., no one at the landing site was answering their phone anymore. By 3 p.m., the helicopter was burning, two of the officials said.

Since then, there has been no communication from the people holding the survivors, said one of the officials with knowledge of the incident. Al-Shabab has also not claimed responsibility for the attack.

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