Missing Red Cross Chopper Search Halted

Rescuers on Monday temporarily suspended a search for a helicopter with seven people aboard that disappeared in rugged mountains along the Afghan-Pakistan border, officials said.

Contact with the Mi-8 transport chopper was lost Saturday after it took off from the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. It had been scheduled to land at the Afghan capital, Kabul, before refueling and flying to neighboring Turkmenistan, where it was based.

The helicopter was chartered by the Red Cross for earthquake relief work in Pakistan. Its crew members were employees of Turkmenistan Airlines, which operated the aircraft. No Red Cross staff were on board.

On Monday Afghan government helicopters and troops were still searching their side of the frontier, but aircraft belonging to a NATO-led peacekeeping force in Afghanistan had withdrawn from the area.

A search on the Pakistani side also failed to locate any sign of the aircraft.

The helicopter was still not located by nightfall Monday and the search was called off until morning, said James Reynolds, deputy head of the Red Cross in Pakistan.

A Pakistani army official, who requested anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the helicopter was not in Pakistan.

"Whatever happened to it, it happened in Afghanistan," he said.

But Afghan Deputy Transport Minister Raz Mohammed Alami said he doubted the helicopter had entered Afghan airspace.

"We have been searching for this chopper for 48 hours but there's no sign of it," Alami said. "If it had gone down on our side of the border, we would have found it."

Still, he said, government choppers and soldiers on the ground would continue their search.

A spokesman for the NATO peacekeeping force in Afghanistan, Maj. Andrew Elmes, said the force's aircraft were still on the lookout for the missing chopper, but special search aircraft had been withdrawn.

Dozens of helicopters have been involved in getting aid to survivors of the Oct. 8 magnitude-7.6 quake in northern Pakistan that killed 87,000 people and left about 3.5 million more homeless.

In October, four people were killed when a U.N. helicopter heading for the quake zone crashed in Azerbaijan, while a Pakistan army helicopter went down in Kashmir because of bad weather, killing all six on board.