July 21, 2008
LA PAZ, Bolivia -- A Venezuelan military helicopter often used to transport Bolivian President Evo Morales crashed in central Bolivia, but Morales was not aboard and is safe, Bolivia's defense minister said Monday. Four Venezuelan military personnel and a Bolivian officer were reported killed.
Morales had used the Super Puma helicopter on Saturday and was scheduled to fly in it again on Monday, Defense Minister Walker San Miguel told reporters. He said those killed were "people linked to presidential transport."
The cause of the crash has not yet been determined, San Miguel added.
Morales visited a part of Bolivia's Amazon region on Monday and asked for a moment of silence for the crew that originally was scheduled to fly him there. He said he felt "great pain" at their loss and expressed condolences to the Venezuelan government.
Morales uses two Super Puma helicopters lent by the government of leftist ally Venezuela for his travel within Bolivia.
The helicopter took off around 3:30 p.m. (1930 GMT) on Sunday from Bolivia's central city of Cochabamba, where it had stopped to refuel, and headed for the northern Amazon city of Cobija. Cochabamba air officials announced the chopper was down.
It was not located until dawn on Monday, when a farmer reported the crash in the village of Colomi, a mountainous area about 155 miles (250 kilometers) east of La Paz, San Miguel said.
San Miguel said officials went to the crash site to investigate and recover the bodies of the crew.
He identified the victims as four members of the Venezuelan military and one Bolivian officer.
Chavez's office issued a statement in which he expressed condolences to the victims' families and said they will be remembered as "martyrs."
Venezuelan opposition leader Antonio Ledezma also mourned the dead but accused Chavez of "interventionist" policies by sending the soldiers and the helicopter to Bolivia.
In June 2007, a helicopter donated by Venezuela crashed in a suburb of the city of Cochabamba, killing three Bolivian soldiers and one Venezuelan.