Two ambassadors to Pakistan were among seven people killed when a military helicopter crashed into a school in the country’s mountainous north on Friday, authorities said, as the local Taliban claimed it shot down the aircraft and had hoped to assassinate the Prime Minister.
The Russian-made helicopter was one of three army Mi-17s carrying a group of diplomats to the Gilgit-Baltistan region as part of a campaign to promote tourism when the chopper collided with the building that was reportedly empty at the time.
Leif H Larsen, the Norwegian envoy, and Domingo D Lucenario Jr of the Philippines were killed along with the wives of the Malaysian and Indonesian ambassadors, as well as the helicopter’s two pilots and a crew member, the army tweeted.
Polish ambassador Andrzej Ananiczolish and Dutch envoy Marcel de Vink were reportedly among those injured.
Update Naltar:7 Fatalities.Foreigners-4(Ambs Norway,Philipine,wife of Amb Indonesia,Malaysia).Pakistani-3; two pilots,one crew member-6— AsimBajwaISPR (@AsimBajwaISPR) May 8, 2015
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was travelling to the area in a separate aircraft to launch two projects when the incident occurred and he had turned back to Islamabad, officials said.
“It was a diplomatic trip with members of 37 countries in total,” said a passenger in one of the helicopters, who requested anonymity, adding that the school had caught fire after the crash.
The passenger added that the air convoy was supposed to have included four helicopters but the number was later reduced to three.
The fallen Mi-17 was carrying 17 people, including 11 foreigners, the military’s spokesperson major-general Asim Bajwa tweeted.
Soon after the incident, the Pakistani Taliban group said it brought down the chopper with a shoulder-launched missile and it had hoped to attack Sharif’s aircraft as well.
“A special group of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan had prepared a special plan to target Nawaz Sharif during his visit but he survived because he was travelling in another helicopter,” said a statement in Urdu emailed by the TTP’s chief spokesperson, Muhammad Khorasani. "Nawaz Sharif and his allies are our prime targets."
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 and since then the army says it has killed more than 1,200 militants there.
Those injured in the crash were being airlifted to a military hospital in Gilgit, the area’s administrative capital, an official said.
"We are making arrangements to send the bodies of the diplomats to their countries with full honour," Pakistan’s foreign secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry told state-run PTV.
Popular for its spectacular mountain ranges and unique culture, Gilgit-Baltistan is a strategically important autonomous region that borders China and Afghanistan but is not known to be a TTP stronghold.
The prime minister’s office said Sharif expressed his “deep grief and sorrow over the tragic incident” and he “extended heartfelt condolences to those who lost their lives.”
Sharif also announced a national day of mourning, according to his office, which said helicopters were evacuating the injured diplomats and that the bodies were being transported to Islamabad.
This is Pakistan’s worst air crash since 2012 when a Boeing 737 passenger plane went down in Islamabad, killing 130 people.
In 1988 the then US ambassador to Islamabad, Arnold Raphel, died in the same plane crash that killed military ruler Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.
“The government and people of Pakistan are deeply saddened over the tragic death of foreigners in the unfortunate incident and equally share the grief of the affected families,” President Mamnoon Hussain said in a statement.
A board of inquiry has been constituted to investigate the cause of the crash, officials said.
(With agency inputs)