BOGOTA – The death toll from the collision of two military helicopters over the southern province of Tolima has risen to seven, Colombian officials said.
Initial reports said a general and five other military personnel died Tuesday in the accident, but Colombian media reported that a technician died later at a hospital.
Army Gen. Fernando Joya Duarte and two colonels were among those killed in the accident, while four other military personnel were injured in the aerial collision.
Technician Victor Sorza Pulido died around 11:00 p.m. from his injuries, Colombian media said.
The accident occurred at 1:45 p.m. and involved a Bell 222 operated by a private contractor and a Colombian air force Huey.
The crash followed a ceremony in the town of Chaparral marking the formation of the South Tolima Joint Task Force, charged with tracking down Alfonso Cano, leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the country’s oldest and largest leftist guerrilla group.
Joya Duarte was the commander of the new counterinsurgency unit, while Col. Carlos Arturo Herrera Castaño commanded the 20th Mobile Brigade and Col. Juan Gonzalo Lopera Echeverry served as operations officer for the task force.
Air force pilot Eider Vargas Avendaño, retired navy Capt. Rodolfo Garzon Vanegas, who was piloting one of the aircraft, and co-pilot Lt. Camilo Andres Cujar died in the accident.
Garzon Vanegas was flying the Bell 222, which belonged to contractor Vertical de Aviacion and hit the air force Huey while “executing a take-off maneuver,” the Armed Forces General Command said in a statement.
The four injured are being treated at a hospital in Neiva, the capital of Huila province, and at a hospital in Chaparral, where the new counterinsurgency unit is based.
A technical team was sent immediately to the crash scene to determine the cause of the collision.
President Alvaro Uribe paid tribute to the crash victims by observing a minute of silence during a forum with students in the southwestern city of Cali.
Joya Duarte was appointed to direct operations aimed “at the neutralization of the members of the terrorist redoubts of the FARC” in the southern part of Tolima, the military said prior to Tuesday’s accident.
The new task force is supposed to focus on finding Cano.
Founded in 1964, the FARC has battled a succession of Colombian governments. The rebel army once had as many as 20,000 fighters, but is now thought to number around 8,000. EFE