A military helicopter crashed during a rescue exercise on the outskirts of Cambodia’s capital on Monday, killing two generals and two other air force officers, according to the country’s defense minister, who said strong winds may have led to the tragedy.
Minister of Defense Tea Banh said that the cause of the crash into a pond about six miles (10 kilometers) south of Phnom Penh had yet to be determined, but confirmed that the helicopter was a Chinese-made Z-9 model recently purchased from Beijing.
The crashed craft was part of a fleet of 12 Z-9 helicopters Phnom Penh bought from Beijing in November with a U.S. $195 million loan from China, the Southeast Asian nation’s closest ally.
“According to my informal investigation, a heavy gust of wind may have blown the helicopter into the pond, but we can’t say for certain yet,” he told reporters, adding that the site of the crash in the capital’s Dangkao district had been frequently used to conduct training exercises.
Monday’s exercise was part of training to rescue victims of flooding and other natural disasters by helicopter, Tea Banh said.
Two generals, who had led the helicopter unit of Cambodia's air force, and a soldier had accompanied two pilots on the flight, reports said.
They were thrown from the helicopter as it crashed into the pond, which the minister said covered a 2-hectare (5-acre) area and was about 30 meters (100 feet) deep.
The injured soldier was taken to nearby Calmette Hospital for treatment, Tea Banh said, adding that military divers later recovered the bodies of the other four who were on the flight.
Tea Banh said that an official investigation was under way.
Those on the ill-fated flight were the head and deputy head of the helicopter unit Ieng Vanarith and Ouk Bunaya, respectively, two pilots who were not identified, and a soldier, Chheng Soksambo.
Witnesses told RFA’s Khmer Service that they had heard a loud noise from the engine of the helicopter, which was flying lower than normal, before it crashed into the pond—a former quarry that had been filled in with water.
Villager Chan Savoeun said the same helicopter had been involved in training missions in the area for three consecutive days.
“I was watching from far away—it was flying around and then I heard a loud sound from the engine and it crashed,” he said.
He said that following the crash, he and other villagers ran to assist and were able to rescue the injured soldier after he surfaced in the water clutching a floating chair cushion.
“I saw he was holding a chair cushion, so I threw him another float to rescue him,” Chan Savoeun said.
A doctor at Calmette Hospital said that the surviving soldier sustained “minor injuries,” the Cambodia Daily reported.
The Associated Press quoted witness Ath Neang, who lives near the site of the crash, as saying that as one of the helicopter’s rotor blades hit the bank of the pond, one man jumped into the water. At about the same time, she heard what sounded like an explosion from the aircraft, which then sank.
The helicopters bought from China last year have been used in military exercises and humanitarian missions.
They were a licensed version of France's Eurocopter AS365 Dauphin that can carry nine passengers in addition to a pilot and were meant to replace a small fleet of aging Soviet-made transport helicopters.
It was unclear if any of them had been fitted as attack helicopters, which would be the first in Cambodia’s arsenal.
According to The Phnom Penh Post, some of the helicopters were involved in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 in March.
In 2008, Cambodia's police chief Hok Lundy was killed in a helicopter crash along with the then deputy army commander and two pilots when their chopper went down in bad weather.
Reported by Sek Bandith for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.