International Committee of the Red Cross helicopter used for Pakistan quake relief missing; seven on board

A helicopter used by the International Committee of the Red Cross for its quake relief operations has gone missing with seven crew aboard, officials said Sunday.

The helicopter lost contact with the air control tower after leaving the northwestern city of Peshawar Saturday, Red Cross quake relief chief Andre Paquet said.

The Mi-8 had been chartered by Turkmenistan to the ICRC for relief work in the quake zone for the past three months. It was returning to Turkmenistan after completing its aid mission, Paquet said.

The helicopter left Peshawar around noon Saturday and lost contact with the tower half an hour later after crossing the Afghan border, said Paquet. Officials in Kabul at the airport and the Interior Ministry said they were unaware of any reports of a crash inside Afghanistan.

The search is being conducted on both sides of the border with helicopters and airplanes. The area was not experiencing inclement weather at the time, he added.

Both ICRC officials could not comment on whether the helicopter might have been shot down. The tense border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan is a stronghold of Taliban and al-Qaida militants, who often clash with government and U.S.-led coalition forces.

A U.S. airstrike on a Pakistani border village on Jan. 13 killed at least 13 villagers in an attempt to hit a suspected meeting of al-Qaida operatives. Pakistani officials say four or five foreign militants also died in that attack.

Oct. 8's 7.6-magnitude quake killed 87,000 people and left around 3.5 million people homeless. Dozens of helicopters are involved in the mammoth relief effort, the AP reported.

In October, four people were killed when a U.N. helicopter heading for the quake zone crashed in Azerbaijan while a Pakistan army helicopter went down in Kashmir because of bad weather, killing all six on board.

A.M.