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Colombian rebels shoot down helicopter, 29 feared dead

July 7, 1997

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Leftist rebels shot down a helicopter that was flying soldiers to the site of an oil pipeline attack Sunday. All 29 people on board were feared killed, military officials said.

The Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter apparently caught fire in the air and exploded when it hit the ground near Saravena, 220 miles northeast of Bogota, the army said.

``The helicopter is totally destroyed. It’s almost impossible to imagine there could be survivors,″ Col. Enrique Fadul, commander of the army’s 2nd Brigade said in a telephone interview.

The helicopter was carrying 24 soldiers and five civilian crew members employed by Helicol, the company that rented the helicopter to the army, the defense ministry said.

Radio reports said several survivors were brought by car to a military base, but the army could not confirm the reports. An army rescue team was unable to reach the crash site because guerrillas remain in the area, said army chief Gen. Manuel Jose Bonett.

The National Liberation Army, the nation’s second-largest rebel group, is believed to be responsible for the attack, Fadul said. The group has been fighting the government for more than 30 years.

A U.S.-made Blackhawk helicopter came under fire when it tried to bring reinforcements to the crash scene, Fadul said. It was forced to leave the area, but there were no reported injuries.

Earlier Sunday, a dynamite attack on the Cano-Limon oil pipeline, the nation’s largest, caused a suspension in pumping, according to the state-owned oil company Ecopetrol. It was the 35th attack this year on the pipeline.

Fadul said the soldiers were heading to the scene to secure the area so oil engineers could fly in to handle repairs.

Col. Roberto Trujillo, another commander, told Radionet radio that he spoke to the pilot moments before the helicopter crashed.

```We have been attacked. We have suffered a failure and are going down,‴ Trujillo said the pilot told him. He did not give the pilot’s name.

Rebels often target the oil industry, causing tens of millions of dollars in damage and lost revenue annually.

Rebels have stepped up attacks throughout the country in recent weeks, dimming hopes for peace after the nation’s largest guerrilla band, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, freed 70 soldiers it had held captive for months.

Update hourly