LIBREVILLE, Gabon (AFP) — At least seven French soldiers have died and one remained missing after an army transport helicopter crashed off the coast of Gabon, officials said Sunday.
The Cougar helicopter was carrying 10 soldiers, including six special forces paratroopers, when it went down shortly after take-off from the French carrier La Foudre on Saturday during military exercises with the west African country.
The French military earlier announced that rescuers had pulled three survivors and a body from sea. However one survivor died in hospital in the Gabonese capital, Libreville, the French army said.
Divers later found the bodies of several missing soldiers and pulled them from the wreckage, located early Sunday at a depth of 35 metres (115 feet), the French government said.
"Unfortunately, we must report the deaths of five other soldiers. A final soldier remains missing. Searches are continuing," the French presidency said in a statement, adding the two survivors were out of danger.
"We will do everything we can to find the last person missing," said French Defence Minister Herve Morin following talks with President Omar Bongo in Libreville.
Rescuers had been scouring for survivors off the coast of Nyonie, a town half-way between the Gabonese capital and the port city of Port-Gentil.
Oil giant Total lent a sonar and underwater robot to a salvage team that helped them locate the wreckage, according to the French government. It also sent three vessels to help in the rescue effort.
There was no immediate information on the cause of the crash, but French President Nicolas Sarkozy has ordered a speedy inquiry, the presidency said. Sarkozy also sent his condolences to the victims' families.
"There is nothing to allow us to understand the cause of the accident," Morin said. "There could be different causes, possibly material causes, possibly human causes, possibly a combination of causes. We don't know more."
He said there would be two probes, a judicial one and another by the French defence ministry.
Shortly after arriving in Gabon Sunday, Morin took a helicopter to La Foudre to monitor rescue efforts that included the Gabonese military. He was to meet with family members and colleagues of the missing soldiers at Camp DeGaulle.
France has about 1,000 troops in Gabon, a former colony and home to one of four permanent French military bases in Africa.
The 10 soldiers on the helicopter were among some 600 troops taking part in a joint maritime security exercise called Operation N'Gari during which forces were to be parachuted onto predetermined targets.
The helicopter went down shortly after taking off from La Foudre, said Lieutenant Colonel Francois-Marie Gougeon, spokesman for the general staff.
The ship "set off the alert and went to the scene of the crash with its own rescuers who picked up the injured within half an hour.
"The sea was calm and the wind low at the time of the crash but the night was very dark," he said.
General Claude Reglat, commander of French forces in Gabon, said the four members of the helicopter crew knew the territory well.
They were "permanent personnel in Gabon who knew the region well," he said. "The six others were commandos who had arrived from France."
Reglat said "we have expressed our compassion and solidarity to the families."
The last fatal accident for the French army was in 2007 when eight French and one Canadian soldier were killed in a small plane crash while on an international peacekeeping monitoring flight over the Israeli-Egyptian border.
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