Islamabad: Pakistani military helicopter carrying 11 foreigners on Friday crashed in the PoK, killing ambassadors of the Philippines and Norway and at least four others as the Taliban claimed responsibility for the downing of the chopper and said Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was the target.
Pakistan Army, however, ruled out the possibility of any terrorist or subversive activity in the crash in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir's Gilgit-Baltistan in the north. Leif H Larsen, the Norwegian envoy, and Domingo D Lucenario Jr of the Philippines were killed along with the wives of the Malaysian and Indonesian ambassadors, besides two army pilots in the helicopter that caught fire as it crashed into a school that had children inside at the time.
Six Pakistanis and 11 foreigners were on board the Mi-17 helicopter that was making an emergency landing when it crashed in Naltar valley, setting the school building ablaze, according to initial reports.
"Two pilots and four foreigners, including ambassadors of Philippine, Norway and wives of Malaysian and Indonesian ambassador were killed," military spokesman Major General Asim Saleem Bajwa said.
"Update Naltar:2 pilots,4 foreigners fatalities.(Ambs Philippine, Norway,wives of Malaysian& Indonesian Ambs).Injured-Polish&Dutch Ambs-5," tweeted Bajwa. Polish ambassador Andrzej Ananiczolish and Dutch ambassador Marcel de Vink were also injured in the crash.
Bajwa said that three Mi-17 military helicopters were carrying several diplomats to Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) where Sharif was to address a ceremony.
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed the responsibility for the downing of the helicopter and said Sharif was their target."The helicopter was shot down by an anti-aircraft missile, killing pilots and many foreign ambassadors," according to a statement in Urdu emailed by the TTP's main spokesman Muhammad Khorasani.
"A special group of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan had prepared a special plan to target Nawaz Sharif during his visit but he survived because he was travelling in another helicopter," Khorasani added.
The TTP claim could not be immediately verified, but the Gilgit-Baltistan region is not known to be a stronghold for the militant outfit. However, Bajwa told the Dawn that the helicopter crashed due to a technical fault and ruled out the possibility of any terrorist or subversive activity. "Two of the helicopters landed safely but the third one crashed and caught fire," Bajwa said.
As per procedure, a board of inquiry has been constituted to investigate into the cause of the crash, he said.
Sharif was scheduled to visit the region to inaugurate two projects and his plane was already airborne but it was diverted back to Islamabad where it landed safely. The Prime Minister "expressed deep grief and sorrow" over the incident and declared one day mourning, according to a statement issued by his office.
The air crash, the worst since 2012 when a civilian 737 went down in Islamabad killing 130 people, was also reminiscent of the one in 1988 that killed then military-ruler General Zia-ul-Haq as well as the US ambassador at the time Arnold Raphel.
According to the Express Tribune, the High commissioners of South Africa and Indonesia have also been injured. The trip was mainly organised for tourism purposes, however, the ambassadors were expected to hold high-level meetings, including one with the Gilgit-Baltistan chief minister Syed Mehdi Shah.
The Dawn report said that the injured have been taken to the emergency ward of the Combined Military Hospital in Gilgit, citing hospital officials. Arrangements were being made by the Pakistan Air Force to bring the bodies of the ambassadors and the wives of two other envoys to Islamabad, it said.
The Foreign Office in Islamabad has informed the respective governments about the tragic incident.