Rescuers hunt for three Ugandan Helicopters in Kenya

Emergency teams on Monday searched for three Ugandan army helicopters feared to have crashed in thick forest in Kenya while flying to Somalia to support forces fighting insurgents there, officials said.

The helicopters went missing around the central Mount Kenya region where the search was being concentrated, Kenyan army spokesman Bogita Ongeri said.

He said one of the pilots had managed to radio for help, but gave no further details.

Four Mi-24 helicopter gunships had taken off from Uganda on Sunday en route for Somalia to assist African Union forces fighting al-Qaeda-linked insurgents.

However, only one had landed for a scheduled refuelling stop in the eastern Kenyan town of Garissa for refuelling.

“Four choppers left Uganda, one landed in Garissa,” said Ongeri.

“A search and rescue team has been dispatched. As of now we do not know that they have crashed…. The terrain and weather are unfavourable.”

The Russian-made Mi-24 is used as an attack helicopter but can also carry up to eight passengers.

The helicopters are feared to have crashed or made emergency landings in the dense forested foothills of snowcapped Mount Kenya, Africa’s second highest peak at 5,199 metres (17,057 feet).

Wild animals including elephants, leopard and rhino prowl the forests, about 110 kilometers (70 miles) north of the capital Nairobi.

“We have received reports that one plane is within Mount Kenya,” said regional police chief Francis Munyambu. “We do not know where exactly it is, there is a general location that has been stated.”

Uganda, whose troops form the backbone of the 17,000-strong African Union force in Somalia, last week said it would send combat and transport helicopters to the Horn of Africa country.

In 2007, after a helicopter crashed in a similar area, it took rescue teams eight days to track down the pilot, who had survived by eating leaves and drinking his urine.

Kenya invaded southern Somalia last year to counter the Islamist threat to its northern border before joining the AU force. It has deployed its own air force — including attack helicopters and fighter jets — to bombard Shebab positions.

Uganda has some 6,500 troops in Somalia, but this is the first time it has deployed helicopters.

The aircraft are seen as key to adding to gains made against the hardline Shebab insurgents, who have fled a string of stronghold towns in recent months, stretching AU military resources over a far wider zone.

Somalia’s weak and corruption-ridden transitional government — in power for eight years — is due to be replaced later this month via a UN-backed process in which elders will select new leaders.

Bowed down by repeated droughts and riven by over two decades of conflict, Somalia is torn between rival clans, Islamist insurgents and the government, which is propped up by the AU force.