- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 14, 2012

NAIROBI, Kenya — Rescue teams searching for survivors in the aftermath of the crashes of three Ugandan helicopter gunships on Kenya’s highest mountain found two bodies Tuesday and were searching for at least seven soldiers and airmen in a rugged landscape where leopards and elephants roam.

Simon Gitau, deputy warden of Mount Kenya National Park, said rescue workers saw two bodies and helped rescue five other people from one of two downed helicopters on Mount Kenya.

A third Ugandan military helicopter that crashed was found Monday, and the occupants rescued.

The helicopters were bound for Somalia to join the fight against an Islamist militia group linked to al Qaeda.

The search-and-rescue teams reached one of the two Ugandan helicopters that crash-landed Sunday about 12,000 feet up Mount Kenya, said Brig. Francis Ogolla, commander of Kenya’s Laikipia Air Base near Mount Kenya.

He told a press conference that the other helicopter was spotted from the air at the edge of a cliff. A rescue team was headed to the site, though bad weather and rugged terrain were hampering its progress.

Three out of four military helicopters that left Uganda on Sunday went missing in Kenyan airspace.

One of the missing helicopters, with seven people on board, was found near Mount Kenya on Monday. No one was killed in that crash, and only one injury was reported.

Maj. Gen. Julius Karangi, Kenya’s military chief, told Parliament on Tuesday that the helicopter found Monday was destroyed beyond repair. Of the two helicopters found Tuesday, one was completely burned and the other was hanging on a cliff.

Gen. Karangi said that efforts were under way to retrieve survivors from those two crashes.

The unexplained crashes will set back efforts by a multinational African force to battle Islamist militants. The militant group, al Shabab, is linked to al Qaeda.

Brig. Ogolla said the helicopters had taken off in formation from Laikipia Air Base at around 4:50 p.m. Sunday en route to the northern Kenya town of Garissa, where the helicopters were to refuel before proceeding to Somalia.

One hour later, only one helicopter landed in Garissa, and the pilot said he had lost communication with the other three, Brig. Ogolla said.

The cause of the three crashes has not been established. Weather around Mount Kenya — Africa’s second tallest peak, at 17,057 feet — can be erratic. Heavy clouds and wind would be common this time of year, with precipitation coming in the form of rain or snow.