A United Nations helicopter plowed into a forested mountainside in central Bosnia on Wednesday, killing 12 officials involved in building peace in this country.
The dead included one of the top international mediators in the Balkan nation and five Americans, diplomats said.
The four-member crew, all Ukrainians, survived the fiery crash in rugged, mountainous terrain about 30 miles northwest of Sarajevo.
An investigation was launched into the cause of the crash. There were no immediate indications of foul play or technical failure, officials said.
Among the dead was Gerd Wagner, an experienced and well-regarded German diplomat who served in Bosnia-Herzegovina as the No. 2 official in the international Office of the High Representative, which is in charge of executing the 1995 peace accords that ended Bosnia’s war.
Also killed were a senior U.S. official in the U.N. task force monitoring Bosnian police; a 31-year-old American woman who worked on human rights issues for the high representative’s office; and an official with the U.S. Justice Department who was in Bosnia to help train its police forces.
In addition to Wagner and the five Americans, the dead included four other Germans, a Briton and a Pole.
The deaths of Wagner and the others were not expected to derail the peace process, but the loss of their accumulated expertise comes at a critical period in Bosnia’s faltering transition from war.
Municipal elections were held last weekend, and making the still-awaited results stick poses a complex challenge for international agencies.
Several of those killed were experienced in the most crucial fields facing Bosnians and their international peacekeepers: the return home of refugees, police reform and human rights.
“They were people who believed strongly in what they were doing and who brought with them special skills and experience to the peace implementation process,” Kai Eide, special representative of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, said in a Wednesday news conference.
Eide and other U.N. officials said Wagner and the group were riding in a Ukrainian MI-8 helicopter, a transport model that holds a 100-gallon fuel tank in the section where passengers sit. The tank apparently ignited on impact.
The helicopter took off from Sarajevo in clear weather about 9 a.m., en route to the central town of Bugojno, but encountered fog in a valley, Eide said, quoting preliminary information provided by a surviving crew member. The aircraft attempted to gain altitude but hit the hillside instead.
The crew, sitting in front, was apparently thrown clear and suffered relatively minor injuries, U.N. spokesman Alexander Ivanko said. The passengers were trapped as the back portion of the helicopter was engulfed in flames.
One passenger survived the crash but was badly burned and died later at a hospital.
Villagers helped rescue the survivors, taking some of them to the closest doctor, Eide said.
The NATO-led peacekeeping force, which controls airspace over Bosnia, dispatched two helicopters to assist, but they did not reach the scene until about two hours after the crash.