PLA defends itself over recovery of helicopter

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 June, 2008, 12:00am

Mainland military authorities defended themselves against criticisms that their labour-intensive approach had delayed the recovery of the wreckage of a crashed relief helicopter.

Speaking at a press conference yesterday, Colonel Ma Gaihe - director general of the army's Operational Logistic Support Bureau - said rough terrain, poor accessibility and the destruction of numerous structures had hindered the search.

It took 11 days to locate the Russian-made Mi-171 helicopter, which disappeared on May 31 with 19 people onboard.

Netizens had asked why it took so much time and 10,000 soldiers to find a single helicopter, even as some scientists came under pressure from the military for offering to help using hi-tech equipment.

Responding to the criticisms, Colonel Ma said the People's Liberation Army had used infrared remote sensors, satellites, synthetic aperture radar imagery and positioning systems to look for the wreckage.

He added that the large number of collapsed metal structures such as power poles had complicated the search.

He said each sighting by the equipment had to be confirmed on the ground and it took two to three days for troops to reach the locations identified.

Colonel Ma said the authorities were considering how to improve the mainland's equipment for relief operations.

'The role of large transport planes and helicopters has been highlighted by this rescue operation,' he said. 'We will carefully review the experience we gain from the rescue and pay more attention to the building of large helicopters, transport planes and equipment for disaster relief.

'We will continue to improve our equipment to enhance our ability in non-conflict operations.'

China has been relying heavily on Russian-made helicopters and US-made Black Hawks in rescue operations.

The crash of the helicopter was caused by a sudden change in air current and the mountainous terrain, Colonel Ma said.

Xinhua reported yesterday that the last body of the victims had been found and 40 PLA soldiers had been sent to retrieve the remains.

The bodies were expected to arrive in Yingxiu town tomorrow, a day behind schedule due to the poor weather and roads.

Ma Jian, deputy chief of the operations department of the General Staff Headquarters, said no PLA soldiers had been killed in the relief operation, although some were injured. Five soldiers died in the crash.

The helicopter lost radio contact with its base during a rapid climb to avoid low clouds while transporting the five personnel and 14 survivors from Li county to Chengdu .

Colonel Ma also said all 34 quake lakes were 'under control'. The PLA and paramilitary groups had been given responsibility for reducing the risks of 20 lakes, while local governments were responsible for other threats.