siem reap – The second RCAF helicopter in more than five years to try to land at the former Khmer Rouge outpost at Preah Vihear temple was critically damaged Wednesday after an erratic landing in a minefield, seriously injuring three people, RCAF officials and passengers said.
The Russian-made Mi-8 helicopter carrying about 35 people, including high-ranking RCAF personnel, a British diplomat, at least 10 journalists and supplies, was undergoing a rough landing when the tail rotor hit the ground, detonating a land mine, passengers said.
Two of the most seriously injured were British Embassy First Secretary Lawrence Pickup and chief of intelligence for RCAF general staff Dom Hak. They returned to Siem Reap town, with co-pilot Koy Tha, from the remote base at the northern border with Thailand, on a four-passenger French-made helicopter. The ill-fated Mi-8 flight originated from Siem Reap Military Airport.
Many other passengers were stranded at the temple base overnight. They will be retrieved today, RCAF officials said.
“Everybody’s fine but the helicopter won’t work,” RCAF Deputy Chief of General Staff Meas Sophea told Agence France-Presse in Siem Reap after returning from Preah Vihear temple.
The helicopter’s landing went awry when it fell over sideways as it touched the ground, passengers said. “We landed, tilted over and then we heard an explosion,” Pickup said.
The shaken passengers were led from the damaged chopper by foot through the minefield by Khmer Rouge defectors, passenger said.
The pilot, 41-year-old Koy Tha, said high winds made it impossible to land at the same spot as Monday, when RCAF successfully landed at the temple for the first time in more than five years.
Wednesday’s wind pushed the helicopter into an alternative landing area, which turned out to be mined, Koy Tha said.
The temple ruins sprawl across a dramatic escarpment rising out of the heavily forested Dangrek Mountains. Views extend 15 km.
“I only know that I was in the chopper and people were being tossed around,” said Dom Hak, who held his shoulder and appeared to be in considerable pain. “Suddenly I heard an explosion.”
Pickup, who looked pale and shaken, said he would seek medical attention locally for chest pains.
“Everybody fell on me, then stood on my chest to try to get out of the helicopter,” he said. Pickup has been in Siem Reap this week, looking into the fate of British deminer Christopher Howes, who was kidnapped with his translator, Houn Hourth, more than two years ago.
Dom Hak appeared to suffer a shoulder sprain, and Koy Tha injured his legs. Both men were airlifted to Phnom Penh.
The helicopter had been ferrying supplies to a mixed force of 300 Khmer Rouge defectors and RCAF soldiers.
The longtime rebel outpost fell into government hands Sunday when RCAF soldiers met the defecting soldiers on the mountain top.
The helicopter tail was severed by the blast, passengers said. Major Prak Sokha said the helicopter would not return because of severe damage.
Among the stranded passengers to be rescued today are former Cambodia Daily photographer David van der Veen, now with Agence France-Presse; Associated Press photographer Ou Neakiry; Reuters reporter Chhay Sophal; freelance British photographer Andy Eames; correspondents from the BBC, the London Daily Telegraph; and journalists from Germany and Japan, rescued passengers said.
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