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NAIROBI – The crew of a crashed United Nations helicopter in Somalia waited for an hour to be rescued before being abducted, two security officials in Mogadishu said Thursday, raising questions about whether a quicker response could have prevented their capture.
The UN helicopter was on its way to evacuate wounded people from the town of Wisil when a mechanical problem caused it to crash on Wednesday. There were nine people on board: four Ukrainian crew members, two Kenyan nurses and an Egyptian who worked for a contractor conducting emergency medical examinations. A Somali military doctor and a Ugandan protection officer were also on board the aircraft.
All are missing and one is believed to be killed after the helicopter crashed 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 including stoning, amputations and public flogging.
Somalia's Shabab militant force captures downed UN 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 Transitional Mission in Somalia, a peacekeeping force called ATMIS, have released details of the incident, other than confirming that a helicopter crashed.
According to a timeline provided by the two Mogadishu-based security officials and messages shared with The Washington Post, about an hour passed before the African Union peacekeeping force – which had another helicopter nearby – was notified of the U.N. helicopter's crash. The reason for the delay was unclear.
The timeline reconstructed by The Post showed the helicopter had begun its flight an hour after refueling when the crew noticed unusual vibrations. An internal UN message later said something had hit a rotor; A message shared with The Post suggested the tip of a blade had come loose.
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 schedule. The pilot, an official said, did excellent control of the spin and prevented a fatal crash. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
At 1:10 p.m. the crew reported the incident to Mogadishu.
At 1:20 p.m., news flowed back and forth about the possibility of a rescue flight that would bring a new blade from the capital, Mogadishu. But even at top speed, a Mi-8 helicopter would have taken 100 minutes to make the 250-mile journey, assuming there were no refueling stops. That would have allowed the damaged helicopter to leave enemy territory, but the rescue helicopter would not have had enough fuel to return to Mogadishu. Just reaching the next fuel depot in Beletweyne could have brought 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 asked to pick up the crew, the two officials said. An African Union helicopter was about 80 miles, or 30 minutes, away in the town of Wisil and had enough fuel to reach the crash site. The plan was to fly with 20 Somali soldiers who could stand guard during the repair work.
At 2:16 p.m., as the relief flight was preparing to take off, one of the people on the downed helicopter told Mogadishu that four unidentified men had approached the scene but retreated when the plane's security officer cocked his weapon.
In addition to the dangers posed by al-Shabab in the lawless region, clan militias and criminal gangs also operate there. Previously, they kidnapped foreigners and sold them to the highest bidder.
One official expressed frustration that the AU flight did not leave Wisil sooner, but another official said the flight was prepared as quickly as possible and that information about unknown people near the downed helicopter also increased the risk, losing a second helicopter.
At 2:34 p.m., someone at the Mogadishu landing site said gunmen had captured five survivors from the landing site and killed one person, according to notes shared with The Post. The Ugandan security guard and the Somali doctor managed to evade capture.
At 2:36 p.m. no one answered the phone at the landing site. The helicopter caught fire around 3 p.m., two officials said.
There has been no communication since then from the people holding the survivors, one of the officials with knowledge of the incident said. Al-Shabab also did not claim responsibility for the attack.