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German envoy, five Americans killed in U.N. helicopter crash in Bosnia

September 17, 1997

PROKOSKO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ A U.N. helicopter slammed into a fog-shrouded mountain in central Bosnia and burst into flames Wednesday, killing a top international envoy, five Americans and six others in the worst accident to hit the peacekeeping effort in Bosnia.

Those killed included German envoy Gerd Wagner, a deputy to top peace mediator Carlos Westendorp, and British diplomat Charles Morpeth. The others who died were not named pending notification of next of kin.

Four Ukrainian crew members of the U.N. helicopter _ an Mi-8 leased from Ukraine _ survived the crash, two of them with light injuries, German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel said.

The crew managed to escape through the shattered glass nose of the craft but was hindered from helping passengers because of fire and thick smoke.

Wagner and his delegation, which included members from Westendorp’s office as well as U.N. employees believed to be police monitors, left Sarajevo for Bugojno ( pronounced BOO-goy-no) this morning, said Alexander Ivanko, a U.N. spokesman in Sarajevo.

According to one Ukranian crew member, the weather was fine when they left Sarajevo, but they encountered ``dense fog″ west of Fojnica, 20 miles east of Bugojno, said U.N. spokesman Liam McDowall. When the pilot attempted to gain altitude, the helicopter crashed into the mountain and burst into flames, McDowall said.

Foul play is not suspected in the crash but an investigation was underway.

The crash appeared similar to one in April 1996, when a plane carrying U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown plowed into a mountain in a heavy storm while traveling to Dubrovnik, Croatia. Brown and 34 others aboard were killed.

Witness Halid Huskic said residents of Prokosko, a mountain village perched above a lake, saw Wednesday’s chopper crash. Hearing shouts, they clambered down and saw four uniformed men pulling a fifth man from the wreck, he said. Then several explosions _ caused either by fuel or ammunition _ prevented any one from approaching the helicopter, he added.

Villagers managed to summon help about 90 minutes after the crash. Dr. Damir Jaganjac of the nearby town of Fojnica said he found 11 burned bodies _ one of them so charred that only a skull and ribs remained.

One survivor’s clothes were burning as doctors carried him away on a stretcher, Jaganjac said. Having no water, they ripped open plastic bags of emergency glucose drips to douse the flames.

``This is the worst day I have experienced in my life,″ said Kai Eide, special representative to the U.N. secretary-general. ``The work these officials were carrying out was essential to ensure that the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina can live in peace.″

Westendorp spoke sadly of the ``the death of such dedicated and selfless servants of the peace process.″

Wagner, 55, was responsible for easing the return of refugees to their prewar homes _ one of the make-or-break elements of the U.S.-brokered Dayton peace accord, signed in December 1995.

In place only since June, Wagner helped smooth the contentious relations between the Muslims and Croats who are supposed to cooperate in governing their half of Bosnia. Bosnian Serbs control the other half.

Wagner’s first posting after joining the German Foreign Ministry in 1971 was in Belgrade, capital of Yugoslavia, now made up of Serbia and Montenegro. He was fluent in Serbo-Croatian.

After a spell in Beirut, Lebanon, he turned to nuclear arms and NATO affairs. He had two postings at the German Embassy in Washington, from 1984-87 and from January 1994 until this summer. He was married with three children.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was ``shocked and deeply saddened″ by the crash, said his spokesman, Fred Eckhard.

In Washington, President Clinton called the crash ``a terrible thing.″

In Sarajevo, Alija Izetbegovic, the Muslim member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, paid tribute to the ``brave people, performing the responsible and noble task of strengthening peace in our country.″

Staff members from Wagner’s office hung white roses on the front door of the building, inscribed: ``Lest we forget their sacrifice for peace.″

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