Two of four aircraft en route to Somalia are feared to have crashed in the foothills of Mount Kenya.
At least two Ugandan military helicopters have gone missing in Kenyan airspace on their way to Somalia to reinforce African Union peacekeeping forces battling al-Shabab rebels, army officials said.
The helicopters, which took off from Uganda on Sunday, are feared to have crashed in the dense forested foothills of snowcapped Mount Kenya, Africa’s second highest peak at 5,199 metres.
“Four choppers left Uganda, one landed in Garissa,” Bogita Ongeri, Kenyan army spokesman, said on Monday.
The three other helicopters went missing around the Mount Kenya region, but “the pilot of one has communicated to us,” he added.
The pilot of the third helicopter had radioed for help from the Mount Kenya region, but rain and poor weather conditions are hampering rescue efforts.
“A search and rescue team has been dispatched,” Ongeri added. “As of now we do not know that they have crashed…. The terrain and weather are unfavourable.”
Uganda is reported to have sent both the Russian made Mi-17 transport and Mi-24 attack helicopters to Somalia. Bongita said the missing aircraft were Mi-24 helicopters, which can carry up to eight passengers.
“We have received reports that one plane is within Mount Kenya,” Francis Munyambu, regional police chief, said. “We do not know where exactly it is, there is a general location that has been stated.”
Beefing up African Union force
Ugandan troops form the backbone of the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia. The air force last week said it would send combat and transport helicopters to Somalia to support the 17,000-strong African Union force there.
Al-Shabab struck the Ugandan capital Kampala in mid-2010 when suicide bombers from the al-Qaeda-linked group killed more than 70 people who were watching soccer on television, apparently in revenge for the presence of Ugandan troops in Somalia.
The rebels meted out similar treatment to Kenya, launching a series of grenade attacks that have killed several people, in retaliation for Nairobi sending its troops across the border last October in pursuit of al-Shabab.
The African Union force, which also includes Kenyan and Burundian troops, is planning an onslaught on Somalia’s second biggest city Kismayu, which is a hub for the Islamist fighters, before August 20.
Weakened by internal divisions and financial constraints, the rebels have surrendered territory in the capital Mogadishu and central and southern Somalia where they are also battling Ethiopian forces.
A US-backed plan calls for Somalia to establish a legitimate government accepted by fractious clans and for a new parliament and constituent assembly to replace institutions plagued by corruption and infighting.
The National Constituent Assembly, sitting in Mogadishu early this month, approved a provisional constitution to replace an eight-year-old Transitional Federal Charter and lead to the end of the transition process on August 20, when the mandate of the UN-backed government expires.