Helicopter crashes in Sierra Leone, 20 killed

FREETOWN Sun Jun 3, 2007 7:46pm EDT

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FREETOWN (Reuters) - A passenger helicopter reported to be carrying Togolese football officials crashed in Sierra Leone on Sunday killing at least 20 people, witnesses and diplomats in the West African country said.

"A helicopter of the Paramount (Airlines) company came down at Lungi (airport)," one diplomat, who asked not to be named, told Reuters. Other diplomats said they had heard at least one person had survived the crash.

Witnesses said the Russian-made Mi-8 helicopter crashed in front of the VIP section of the airport terminal and burst into flames. It was carrying passengers from the capital Freetown to the airport.

There was no immediate confirmation of the identities of the victims but a local radio said they included members of the Togolese football federation who had earlier attended an African Nations Cup qualifying game played in Freetown.

Togolese sports officials had apparently chartered the helicopter to catch their flight back to Togo.

Paramount Airlines is one of two commercial companies that run helicopter services between Freetown and Lungi airport, ferrying passengers in a 7-minute flight over the Sierra Leone river.

The alternative slower route is to use rusting river ferries or local fishing boats.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair paid a one-day trip to Sierra Leone, a former British colony, last week as part of a farewell tour to Africa.

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