Two ambassadors to Pakistan were among six people killed when a military helicopter crashed into a school in the country’s mountainous north on Friday, the country’s army said.
The two pilots of the MI-17 transport helicopter were also killed in the crash, which took place as the foreign dignitaries were being ferried to the inauguration of a project that was to be presided over by Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s prime minister.
Army spokesman Asim Bajwa said four foreign passengers died, including Domingo D Lucenario, the Philippine ambassador, and Norwegian envoy Leif H Larsen.
The wives of the Malaysian and Indonesian envoys were also killed, while the Polish and Dutch ambassadors were among the injured, Bajwa said.
Witnesses said the helicopter was one of three that crashed in Naltar, a valley town in Gilgit-Baltistan, the mountainous region that Pakistan hopes will emerge as a key part of a major land trade route with China.
Sharif was en route to the nearby city of Gilgit for an inauguration ceremony but turned back in the wake of the crash, state media said.
The prime minister “expressed deep grief and sorrow over the incident”, according to the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation.
It was not immediately clear what caused the crash, which set school buildings ablaze. The Taliban said it had shot the helicopter down, but militants do not operate in the area and the group often claims responsibility for incidents it has nothing to do with. The high altitude, mountainous terrain – part of the Karakoram range – is inherently risky for aircraft.
“I was standing with a friend when I noticed a helicopter coming into land,” said local Irtiza Hussain. “I had only just seen the colours that told me it was a military helicopter when the next moment it fell.
“We heard a very horrible sound and we ran away, fearing the soldiers would start asking questions of us.”
Eleven foreigners and six Pakistani passengers were also on board the aircraft at the time of the crash. The injured were airlifted to a military hospital in Gilgit city.
It is not the first a senior foreign diplomat has died in a Pakistani military aircraft. In 1988 the then US ambassador to Islamabad, Arnold Raphel, died in the same plane crash that killed military ruler Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.