The ambassadors to Pakistan from Norway and the Philippines and the wives of the ambassadors from Malaysia and Indonesia have been killed along with two others when a Pakistani military helicopter crashed on Friday morning.
The diplomats were traveling as part of a tourism expedition with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the Naltar valley near Gilgit, about 300 miles north of the capital Islamabad. The prime minister was on a separate aircraft, which turned back and returned to Islamabad upon hearing of the crash. Two diplomats survived and are being treated at an army medical facility,
Government officials say that the military helicopter went down due to a “technical fault”. This has been a worrying trend for the past decade in Pakistan’s ageing fleet of Russian-made MI-17 helicopters. Three years ago, five people were killed when one of the helicopters crashed in Skardu — not far from the location of Friday’s crash — due to “unknown reasons.”
In 2009, 41 people were killed aboard an MI-17 due to what was also said to be “a technical fault”. The same reason was given for the deaths of four people in Pakistan-administered Kashmir in 2007, and for 13 people who suffered the same fate in the northwestern tribal areas in 2004.
There had initially been fears that the crash may have involved terrorism. The Pakistani Taliban eagerly contacted local reporters to claim responsibility, adding that they had meant to target Sharif, the Prime Minister, in retaliation for military action against them. In the past, Pakistan-based terrorists have targeted foreign diplomats, including attacks on the Danish embassy and the kidnapping of an Iranian diplomat.
Government officials deny that terrorism was the cause of the crash and eyewitnesses said the helicopter appeared to spin out of control and crash, without any mid-air explosion. Pakistan has announced a national day of mourning to mark the losses suffered by Norway, the Phillipines, Indonesia and Malaysia, as a stream of condolences appeared from politicians and journalists on social media.
Leif Larsen, the 61-year-old veteran envoy from Norway, was a thoughtful and highly-respected member of the Islamabad diplomatic corps. Last week, he had spoken in an interview with Newsweek Pakistan about his affection for the seldom-mentioned “softer side” of Pakistan.
Domingo D. Lucenario, Jr., the 55-year-old ambassador from the Philippines, was one of his country’s most distinguished diplomats. He had won a series of presidential awards for his service. Before arriving in Islamabad, he also served as Manila’s envoy to Afghanistan, Kyrgyztan and Tajikistan, Lucenario had spent four years as an ambassador to a number of African countries.