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Conflicting Claims Over Pakistani Helicopter Crash That Killed Foreign Ambassadors

The Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility for a helicopter crash in the north of the country, leaving at least seven dead, although the military says the cause of the crash was a technical fault.

by Mohammad Zubair Khan and Jenna Corderoy
May 8 2015, 3:40pm

Photo via AP

Contradictory reports are emerging over how a military helicopter crashed into a school in northern Pakistan on Friday, killing at least seven people, including the ambassadors of Norway and the Philippines.

The aircraft was carrying 17 people —11 foreign nationals and six Pakistanis — when it plunged to the ground during an emergency landing in the Naltar Valley of the Gilgit-Baltistan territory, colliding into an army school building.

Military spokesman Asim Bajwa tweeted that the cause of the crash was a technical fault while landing. Defense ministry sources also told VICE News that "initial investigations had revealed that the crash was caused by a failure in the tail rotor of the helicopter. The helicopter lost control and the hit the roof of a local school in the area. Following the crash the helicopter caught fire."

Yet the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) stated in an email that they were behind the incident, using an anti-aircraft missile, a claim that is yet to be confirmed. 

TTP spokesman, Muhammad Khorasani, said: "A special group of TTP had prepared a special plan to target [Pakistani Prime Minister] Nawaz Sharif during his visit but he survived because he was travelling in another helicopter." The statement continued: "Sharif and his accomplices are our primary targets."

Bajwa confirmed that the wives of the Indonesian and Malaysian envoys, Norwegian envoy Leif Larsen, Domingo Lucenario of the Philippines, two Pakistan Army pilots, and a crew member were killed in the crash. Ambassadors from Poland, the Netherlands, Romania, Lebanon, and South Africa are among the injured.

Military helicopters were carrying foreign diplomats to an inauguration of a chairlift project built for ski tourists in the Naltar Valley, with the ceremony to be led by Sharif. According to media reports, Sharif was en route to the inauguration by plane, but returned to Pakistani capital Islamabad upon hearing the news of the crash. The prime minister also declared a day of mourning.

Reports have indicated that no children were present in the school, which was closed in light of Sharif visiting the area.

Related: Pakistan Is Investigating a CIA Official Accused of Murder After a US Drone Strike

An eyewitness, known only as Mabashar, described the crash to VICE News: "I saw the helicopter swing and fall with a loud blast. The scene was watched by many villagers who rushed towards the spot and we broke the helicopter windows to rescue the passengers. [They] all seemed to be foreigners."

Muhammad Laqam, another witness, told VICE News: "It was around 10am and that time, there were strong winds blowing. Suddenly, I saw a helicopter going down from a height of 25-30 feet. I clearly saw it swing and crash into the school. I rushed to the spot with the other villagers."

The helicopter was a MI-17, a model of military helicopter which has been involved in a number crashes in Pakistan, according to the BBC. In 2012, an army helicopter crashed near the Skardu airport in Gilgit, killing five people. In 2009, 41 security personnel were killed in a MI-17 helicopter crash in Parachinar.  

The mountainous region of Gilgit-Baltistan has also seen a number of terrorist attacks in recent years. In June 2013, gunmen shot 11 people at the base camp of Nanga Parbat in retaliation for the killing of Waliur Rehman, a senior Taliban leader, in a US drone strike. August 2012 saw at least 20 Shia Muslims, travelling from the of Rawalpindi to the city of Gilgit, killed in a sectarian attack.