Sunday, June 17, 2007

Sierra Leone aviation officials arrested over helicopter crash

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone: Police have arrested four government officials, including the transport minister, in connection with a helicopter crash earlier this month that killed 22 people, Sierra Leone's government said.

A statement late Friday said the four men were arrested and detained "to assist with the investigations" into allegations that officials accepted bribes to remove a safety-related flight ban on two commercial airlines. One of those companies, Paramount Airlines, operated the helicopter that crashed on June 3.

The other officials arrested were the transport minister's permanent secretary, Sierra Leone's civil aviation director and the deputy director.

It was not immediately clear whether any of the arrested men had been charged with a crime.

The helicopter was ferrying a group of Togolese soccer fans and sports officials — including Togolese Minister for Youth and Sports Richard Attipoe — to Sierra Leone's main airport when it exploded in flames. The Togolese were returning home after cheering their team's 1-0 victory over Sierra Leone at an African Cup of Nations qualifying match.

Helicopters are used as the main transport between the airport and the capital, which sits across a bay on the Atlantic Ocean.

The Russian-made Paramount helicopters were grounded in January because of concerns about engine malfunction. The ban was lifted in March.

Transport Minister Prince Harding, Civil Aviation Director George Gbongbor and Deputy Director Badara Alieu Tarawallie were suspended soon after the crash. The fourth detainee, Transport Ministry Permanent Secretary Abdul Rahman Wurie had not been suspended.

Wurie had previously told the Associated Press that the ban was lifted after an air-worthiness review by the International Civil Aviation Organization. ICAO spokesman Denis Chagnon said this report was incorrect, and that the organization had performed no such survey.

The government officials are being held in police stations in the capital, Freetown.

After the crash, the government grounded all commercial helicopters operating in the country. The only other way to get to the airport from Freetown is via sea ferry.

In 2001, a U.N. helicopter traveling from U.N. headquarters in Sierra Leone to the airport crashed into the bay, killing all seven aboard. The U.N. said at the time a mechanical problem appeared to have been the cause.

Sierra Leone aviation officials arrested over helicopter crash - International Herald Tribune