ISLAMABAD (AP) — The ambassadors to Pakistan from the Philippines and Norway and the wives of the ambassadors from Malaysia and Indonesia were among seven people killed Friday when a Pakistani army helicopter carrying foreign dignitaries crash landed in the country’s north.
The Pakistani air force said a technical failure had caused the crash and that a fire, which broke out on the aircraft after the crash, had caused the high number of fatalities — one of the worst aircraft crashes in Pakistan that killed and injured such a high number of foreign dignitaries.
Four foreigners — the ambassadors from the Philippines and Norway and the wives of the ambassadors from Malaysia and Indonesia — were among those killed, along with two pilots and a crew member. Ten passengers were injured.
Earlier, Pakistani army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa, tweeted that the MI-17 helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing. He said that the surviving passengers, including the Dutch and Polish ambassadors, received “varying degree of injuries.”
The helicopter was on route to the northern village of Naltar where Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was to attend a public ceremony to inaugurate the newly installed chair-lift at a ski resort. Sharif was in his own plane on route to Naltar when the “tragic news” was conveyed to him, according to a statement from the prime minister’s office. It said Sharif returned to Islamabad in the wake of the crash.
Air force spokesman Syed Muhammad Ali later told the state-run news agency that a technical failure forced the crash landing and that the helicopter caught fire when it went down with the diplomats who were being flown to Naltar to attend the inauguration at the ski resort.
Hussain Khan, a police officer at Naltar, said he saw the helicopter stall in midair, then come down in an erratic manner as if the pilot had no control over it — then suddenly, it plunged down toward a school building on the ground.
“The helicopter was preparing to land at a helipad near a school, when it suddenly …. crashed and caught fire,” Khan told The Associated Press over phone from Naltar.
Security forces quickly started the rescue work and transported the dead and injured to a nearby hospital, he added.
Earlier, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry said the heads of diplomatic missions from more than 30 countries, along with their family members and some Pakistani dignitaries, had been flown to the city of Gilgit by a C-130 aircraft.
“From there, they were being taken to Naltar in four helicopters for a three-day excursion trip,” the ministry statement said.
The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs announced it was “deeply saddened” by the death of Ambassador Domingo Lucenario Jr., and that his colleagues in Manila observed a two-minute period of silence in commemoration. Lucenario, 54, also served as non-resident ambassador to Afghanistan, Kyrgystan and Tajikistan. He is survived by his wife and three children.
Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende confirmed the death of Ambassador Leif H. Larsen, describing him in a statement as, “a well-liked and highly respected colleague. His friends and colleagues in the Foreign Ministry and across our foreign stations are today in sorrow.”
Larsen, 61, is survived by a wife and a son.
Malaysia’s foreign ministry confirmed that the wife of its high commissioner to Pakistan perished in the crash. The high commissioner Hasrul Sani Mujtabar survived the incident and currently being treated at the Gilgit hospital, it said.
Romania’s ambassador to Pakistan, Emilian Ion, was on the same helicopter and survived, the Romanian Foreign Ministry said. Pope Thrower, assistant spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, said that “no American Embassy personnel participated in this trip.”
Hours after the crash, Indonesia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi confirmed in Jakarta that Heri Listyawati, the wife of Indonesia’s ambassador, was killed while her husband, Burhan Muhammad, survived with injuries.
In Poland, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that the Polish Ambassador Andrzej Ananicz and his wife, Zofia, were on board the helicopter and that “both suffered injuries, which were not life threatening.”
Sharif, in his statement, expressed his “deep grief and sorrow over the tragic incident” and said he “extended heartfelt condolences to those who lost their lives in this incident.”
Sharif declared Saturday a national day of mourning, according to his office, which also said that helicopters were evacuating the injured diplomats and that the bodies of those killed were being transported to Islamabad.
“We are making arrangements to send the bodies of the diplomats to their countries with full honor,” Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry told state-run Pakistan Television.
Hours after the crash, the Pakistani Talban issued a statement claiming they had shot down the helicopter with an anti-aircraft missile. It was impossible to immediately verify the claim, and unclear if it was merely an opportunistic attempt to claim responsibility for such a tragic incident.
Pakistan’s Minster for Defense, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, made no reference to the Taliban claim but said in an earlier statement that initial reports suggested the crash was due to a “technical fault.”
Pakistani security forces have been fighting militants in the country’s northwestern tribal regions bordering Afghanistan for the past several years. Pakistan launched a massive operation in the North Waziristan tribal region last year. Since then, the army says it has killed more than 1,200 militants there.
The crash area in Naltar is several hundred kilometers (miles) from North Waziristan.
Although aircraft and helicopter crashes are not uncommon in Pakistan, Friday’s incident was the worst since 2010, when a Pakistani air plane crashed near Islamabad, killing 146 passengers. Another Pakistani passenger plane crashed near Islamabad in 2012, killing 121 passengers and six crew members.
Associated Press writers Zarar Khan in Islamabad; Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan; Alison Mutler in Bucharest, Romania; Teresa Cerojano in Manila, Philippines; Karl Ritter in Stockholm; Ali Kotarumalos in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Poland, contributed to this report.