10 dead in Kazakhstan helicopter crash: official

 Tue Sep 8,

ALMATY, Kazakhstan (AFP) – Ten border guards were killed and three injured Tuesday when a Kazakh patrol helicopter crashed while pursuing suspected gunmen near the Uzbek border, officials said.

Kazakhstan’s KNB state security service, which is responsible for border guards in the ex-Soviet state, did not give details about the cause of the crash of the Mi-8 chopper in a remote mountainous region.

“The burned remains of the helicopter have been found. The area around where the helicopter crashed has been fully searched and no other survivors have been found,” the KNB said in a statement quoted by Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency.

The dead included one colonel, two majors, two captains and five conscripts. The statement said that the three wounded had been taken to the hospital in Shymkent, the main city in the South Kazakhstan region.

No further details were given about the condition of the survivors or the cause of the crash.

The troops were headed to the border with neighbouring Uzbekistan when the helicopter went down, after Kazakhstan received information from Tashkent about an illegal armed group operating in the area.

A string of incidents, from a suicide bombing in Uzbekistan in May to gun battles with suspected militants in Tajikistan this summer, have ratcheted up tensions in this predominantly Muslim region near war-torn Afghanistan.

“We received information from the border service of … Uzbekistan that six gunmen had planned to illegally cross the Kazakh-Uzbek border,” a KNB official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

But communications with the helicopter were lost at 10:30 am (0430 GMT) as it was flying through an isolated mountainous region shortly before forest service officials in the Ugamsk Gorge reported seeing the crash.

Officials with the KNB and the Emergency Situations Ministry both declined to comment on the cause of the crash.

Uzbekistan has been unilaterally building up its border defences with neighbouring Kyrgyzstan in recent months, amid growing tensions in the volatile region and a series of cross-border incidents involving suspected militants.

Diplomats and analysts have cautioned that growing instability here poses a threat to global security and could have a negative impact on coalition operations in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have offered their territory for the transit of non-military cargo destined for use by the US-led coalition fighting the Taliban and its allies in its southern neighbour.

Ex-Soviet Central Asia – a vast expanse of turbulent and impoverished countries bordering Russia, China and Iran – has struggled to maintain its flagging infrastructure since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Accidents in the region’s ageing civilian fleets of Soviet-era aircraft are common, with more than three dozen regional airlines banned from operating flights within the European Union.