- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 24, 2006

KATMANDU, Nepal — Heavy rain and thick clouds hampered the search yesterday for a helicopter chartered by the conservation group WWF that disappeared in bad weather with 24 persons on board, including the local deputy director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, officials said.

Radio contact with the Russian-built MI-17 helicopter was lost on Saturday in Taplejung district, a remote mountainous area 190 miles east of the capital, Katmandu.

Army and civilian helicopters and ground rescue teams began combing the forested hills for the aircraft, which was carrying 17 Nepali nationals and seven foreigners.

“There is poor visibility due to rains and clouds that is hampering our work,” Bimalesh Lal Karna, a search and rescue coordinator, said yesterday.

He said five helicopters were forced to halt aerial surveys until weather cleared, but search teams on foot continued to scour the forests.

A team had been dropped by helicopter near the site where the aircraft vanished, and there were also about 90 army and police rescuers as well as villagers, he said.

Among the flight’s 20 passengers and four crew members were Nepal’s Forest Minister Gopal Rai and his wife, Finnish Charge d’Affaires Pauli Mustonen, and Margaret Alexander, the deputy director of USAID in Nepal.

The WWF (formerly the World Wildlife Fund) said seven staff members were on the helicopter — three from WWF Nepal, two from WWF United Kingdom and two from WWF United States. Four were Nepali, and the others were a Swiss-Australian, a Canadian and an American.

Two of the crew were Russians.

The WWF said a task force formed by the Nepali government, comprising the army and police, was coordinating the search.

“Until we receive definite confirmation, WWF Nepal still holds the status of the helicopter as missing, and we hope for the safe return of all on board,” the group said on its Web site www.wwfnepal.org.

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