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27 April 2000 Edition

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Soldiers may have died in helicopter crash

BY DEIRDRE FEEHAN

A British Army helicopter crash in South Armagh last month may have killed two soldiers.

A Lynx helicopter with seven British soldiers and two crew members crashed into a field just 50 yards from a house in Mullaghbawn on the afternoon of 2 March.

Media reports described the incident as an emergency crash landing but eye witnesses have stated that the aircraft shattered into several pieces on impact.

A large British army and RUC force, which arrived in five helicopters immediately after the crash, sealed off a wide area to prevent civilians from observing the scene and spent two days clearing the debris.

A Chinook helicopter collected the pieces of the broken helicopter, which were taken away in heavy gauge netting.

Civilians arriving at the scene were told by British soldiers that the debris was scattered over a wide area and that a number of those travelling in the helicopter were seriously injured.

However, press reports at the time suggested that only two of the soldiers were injured in the `emergency landing'. They were described as `minor casualties'.

Toni Carragher of the South Armagh Farmers and Residents Committee (SAFRC) said: ``When we arrived a few hours after the crash, we were told by one soldier we could not go near the scene as the debris was strewn all over the place. They said some of the soldiers were seriously injured and others were in shock.''

A local man who had access to the crash site the following morning said the helicopter was broken into several parts.

He said: ``It was scattered across the field in smithereens. There is no way that everyone travelling in that helicopter walked away from the crash.''

Adding to the speculation that there were fatalities in the accident, British newspapers, two weeks later, reported on the deaths of two British soldiers, Michael Byron and Peter Hawkins, in Cyprus.

The 21-year-old soldiers from Birkenhead and members of the 22nd Cheshire regiment were reported to have died when their car hit a cement mixer on an unfinished section of motorway between Limassol and Paphos on 19 March. Another two soldiers were suffering from life threatening injuries, the reports claimed.

The four had apparently only arrived in Cyprus for duty three days previously but were already on leave when the crash happened.

It was also claimed that there was difficulty identifying the men because of the intensity of the fire. Furthermore, the roadway was not open to vehicles. A Cypriot police spokesperson told the Daily Mail: ``It appears their rented car hit a cement mixer stationed on part of the road which was not open to traffic and caught fire.''

The British Army practice of blaming deaths of soldiers in the North on traffic accidents in Europe is long established in South Armagh, said Carragher.

She said the reason for the claim is that the British army does not want to concede that there are serious risks to its own personnel and civilians from unsafe helicopters.

``Is it traditional for British soldiers to be given leave after only four days on duty? Allegedly, the parked vehicle they hit was on a stretch of road not open to the public, therefore there are no eye witnesses,'' said Carragher. ``The reports said there was difficulty identifying the bodies which is also convenient to allow time to build the Cyprus concoction.''

There have been a number of documented crashes of the Lynx medium sized helicopter which is used to carry soldiers around the Six Counties on hundreds of flights daily.

A helicopter crash in which three British soldiers were killed in Bosnia in December 1998 also involved the Lynx.

In May last year, three aircrew died when a Lynx crashed near the village of Tilton, Leicestershire.

In November 1998, a Lynx helicopter crashed just off the main road between the villages of Crossmaglen and Cullaville, taking down electricity wires and pylons. The British Army denied there was a crash.

In April 1999, a helicopter almost crashed into St Bridget's School in Glassdrummond and a similar incident took place last month. It is suspected that the British Army is reluctant to withdraw its fleet of Lynx choppers due to their extensive operational use in the border area.

A British Army spokesperson confirmed that a helicopter was involved in a crash landing, however, he would not confirm which regiment was involved in the Mullaghbawn crash.

Already this year, the Isle of man-based military monitoring group the Celtic League accused the British Ministry of Defence of using defective aircraft. The League said the MoD had admitted to them that their Lynx helicopters were fitted with second-hand parts in the tail rotor shafts.

The League maintains that these rotor parts are defective and they are fitted in helicopters used mainly in the Six Counties.

Meanwhile, 14 Britsh military personel were injured when the Puma helicopter they were travelling in crashed near Catterick British army base in North Yorkshire on Wednesday, 19 April.

According to media reports, the aircraft fell 15 feet to the ground and split in two just minutes after it refueled at nearby RAF Leeming. The British Army said the cradh happened during a training exercise.
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