Sierra Leone grounds helicopters, suspends minister of transport

Transport minister of Sierra Leone was suspended by the country’s president following a weekend crash that killed 22 people. All the commercial helicopters were grounded.

The helicopter was ferrying a group of Togolese soccer fans and sports officials - including Togolese Minister for Youth and Sports Richard Attipoe - to the country's main airport when it exploded into flames Sunday night. Most of those aboard were Togolese returning home after cheering their team's 1-0 victory over Sierra Leone at an African Cup of Nations qualifying match.

Sierra Leone President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah declared three days of national mourning for the dead, the president's office said in a statement.

Kabbah suspended both the transport minister and his deputy of civil aviation pending an investigation into the accident.

The government also grounded all commercial helicopters operating in the country, including those that transport people from the airport across a bay to the capital, Freetown, on the Atlantic Ocean. The only other way to get to the airport from Freetown is via sea ferry.

The government of Togo has sent a six-person delegation to help with the investigation into the crash. The charred remains of the deceased have been transported to the state mortuary, where autopsies will be conducted once a pathologist from Togo's government arrives, said Sierra Leone's State Pathologist Owiss Kamara.

News of the accident sent the tiny West African country of Togo into mourning. Togolese radio stations broadcast solemn funeral songs every 30 minutes, and President Faure Gnassingbe called for flags to fly at half-staff.

Many Togolese called for an investigation into the crash after a Togolese soccer official in Lome reported receiving an SMS message from one of the crash victims saying he and other fans had been threatened in Freetown.

Winnie Dogbatse, president of a Togo soccer club, told a Lome radio station that the text message sent before the man boarded the helicopter described Sierra Leoneans, angry at having lost the game, allegedly making death threats against the Togolese soccer fans.

In 2001, a U.N. helicopter traveling from U.N. headquarters in Sierra Leone to the airport crashed into the bay, killing all seven aboard. The U.N. said at the time a mechanical problem appeared to have been the cause.

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