KAMPALA–Uganda is reconsidering plans to deploy its air force in support of ground troops in Somalia after three combat helicopters crashed en route to the war-torn Horn of Africa nation on the weekend, the country’s junior defense minister said Tuesday.
The Ugandan army has spent weeks deploying men and materiel into Somalia as part of a regional effort to deal a decisive blow against al-Qaeda affiliated al-Shabaab militants holed up in the port city of Kismayo. However, the loss of the helicopters has delayed those plans and served to highlight the limited ability of the East African nation to mount foreign incursions.
General Odongo Jeje said the crashes, which destroyed three Mi-24 attack helicopters, had dented the capacity of Uganda’s nascent air force and forced a re-evaluation of its strategic capabilities.
“Government will re-examine itself and assess its capacity as to whether to continue with the deployment,” said Gen. Jeje.
Commanders organizing the operation have since been recalled to the Kenyan capital Nairobi to rework plans for the long-awaited attack. They are expected to remain there until the end of the week, intelligence officials told Dow Jones Newswires, but as yet there is no indication of when the operation will be attempted.
Only one of the four Russian-made helicopters that were supposed to spearhead the assault by African Union forces made it to their scheduled destination. The other three crashed in a remote mountainous area of Kenya late Sunday, derailing plans for a joint attack with the Kenyan navy on Kismayo, the country’s second-largest city, and a stronghold and source of funding for al-Shabaab.
Gen. Jeje said a panel had been appointed to establish what caused the accident.
“Preliminary investigations point at bad weather around Mount Kenya but the probe will find out what could have gone wrong,” said Gen. Jeje.
The probe is also an opportunity to refute any lingering suspicions that enemy action was to blame, said Gen. Jeje. Although both Uganda and Kenya have maintained that the helicopters weren’t shot down, a formal investigation is still needed to adjudge what happened, he said.
The aircraft, weaponry and equipment had been prepared for three months, while United Nations experts had concluded the helicopters were airworthy and combat ready, said Gen. Jeje.
According to Kenya’s Civil Aviation Authority, the maximum altitude that an Mi-24 can reach is 4,500 meters, making a journey circumventing Mount Kenya’s peaks — which stand at 5,199 meters — particularly hazardous.
“An Mi-24 pilot would have to go around the mountain, but with poor visibility, there is a possibility of crashing into the mountain sides,” the body said Tuesday in a report on its Website.
The accidents are the latest to befall Uganda’s air force, which critics say is hamstrung by a fledgling fleet of aged and badly-maintained aircraft. In 2005, South Sudan President John Garang died after a Ugandan military helicopter he was travelling in crashed in a mountain as it entered the South Sudan airspace, while a Russian-made Sukhoi jet reportedly crash landed at Entebbe airport in November.
Rescue workers reached the wreckage of one of the helicopter in a forest on Mount Kenya and recovered the bodies of two occupants. Five survivors were evacuated for treatment, Kenyan army spokesman Bogita Ongeri told Kenya national television.
The wreckage of the second aircraft has been sighted but rescuers are yet to reach its crash site. The fate of its seven occupants remains unknown. A third helicopter on the same mission also crashed in forests in the Mount Kenya region late Sunday, but all seven Ugandan servicemen on board were rescued Monday, after they managed to radio for help.
Uganda provides around a third of the nearly 17,000-strong AU force in Somalia, and Kampala had said last week it would send its first combat and transport helicopters to the Horn of Africa nation.
The loss of the aircraft is a significant setback for the Ugandan-led AU forces, or Amisom, who have made inroads against al-Shabaab in recent months.
Al-Shabaab carried out a twin attack in Kampala in July 2010 killing at least 89 people, and have since carried out similar attacks in Kenya. Kenya has more than 4,500 troops in Somalia as part of Amisom.
Somalia has been without an effective central government for two decades following the toppling of former President Muhammed Siad Barre, making the country a haven for terrorists, pirates and illegal arms dealers.
-Write To Nicholas Bariyo at Nicholas. Bariyo @dowjones.com