French soldiers missing in helicopter crash

Two soldiers have died and six are still missing after a French army helicopter crashed in the sea off the coast of Gabon during a bilateral military exercise on Saturday.


AFP - Three survivors were found after the crash of a French military helicopter off Gabon, with one soldier dead and six still missing, it was announced early Sunday.

"The provisional toll is one dead, one seriously injured, one lightly injured, one who survived unhurt and six missing," Lt.-Col. Francois-Marie Gougeon of the general staff in Paris told AFP.

Ten French soldiers, including four crew members and six special forces members, were earlier reported missing after the helicopter crashed into the sea Saturday during a joint exercise off the west African nation of Gabon.

The Cougar transport helicopter went down off Nyonie, a small town situated between the capital Libreville and the town of Port-Gentil further south, Lt.-Col. Pascal Carpentier said in Libreville.

It crashed at 8:08 pm (1908 GMT) shortly after taking off from the landing craft transporter La Foudre, cruising 50 kilometres (30 miles) off the Gabonese coast, Gougeon said.

The ship "set off the alert and went to the scene of the crash with its own rescuers who picked up the injured within half an hour.

"The sea was calm and the wind low at the time of the crash but the night was very dark," he said, adding that "search operations will naturally continue all night" with La Foudre, two helicopters and vessels made available by French oil company Total.

An inquiry would be held into the causes of the accident "very soon," Gougeon said.

The French presidential palace said in a statement earlier that President Nicolas Sarkozy had been informed about the crash and had "asked that all available means in the area be immediately deployed to find the soldiers who were aboard."

Sarkozy ordered Defence Minister Herve Morin to travel to the area. He was expected to leave early Sunday morning.

In Libreville, Carpentier said: "We have put all our available means into the operation. There are aircraft and La Foudre. We have also appealed to Total which has put three vessels at our disposal."

Six hundred soldiers backed by Cougar and Fennec helicopters were taking part in a joint exercise to coordinate maritime safety operations. During Operation N'Gari, men were to be parachuted onto predetermined targets including Nyonie.

Carpentier said 120 Gabonese troops participated in the exercise, due to run from January 17-21.

Gabon's Interior Minister Andre Mba Obame told AFP: "At daybreak we will deploy all our means, planes, helicopters, boats... to take part in the search."

France has around 1,000 troops in Gabon, a former French colony, with one of four permanent bases in Africa.

The French Forces in Gabon (FFG) are here to assure the safety of the 12,000 French residents in the country in case of threat, and carry out aid missions, according to an FFG press handout.

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