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17th September 2000
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Volunteers carrying down the hill charred bodies 
recovered form the crash site. 
Pic by Shane Seneviratne 

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Ashraff dies in mystery crash

Minister and National Unity Alliance leader M.H.M. Ashraff and 14 others were killed when a Sri Lanka Air Force helicopter crashed mysteriously at Urakanda, near Aranayake.

Their charred bodies, all beyond recognition, were recovered from the slope of a hill by police and villagers. An SLAF rescue team on board a helicopter hovered helplessly overhead with no flat terrain to land, as police and villagers cut through heavy outgrowth and cleared rugged terrain to reach the spot. They had to trek nearly four miles. 

Mr. Ashraff had boarded a Russian built Mi-17 helicopter from the Sri Lanka Air Force VIP Squadron, shortly after 9.30 am from the Police Grounds at Bambalapitiya. His flight to Ampara was to have taken him over Kandy, Randenigala, Maha Oya, Iginiyagala areas.

Almost 40 minutes after take off, Squadron Leader Shiran Perera, an experienced pilot with 7000 flying hours to his credit, had radioed the SLAF Control Tower at Katunayake that he was cruising at some 500 feet. At sea level, that would have been about 1500 feet but he was over hilly terrain that accounted for 1500 feet. He had reported he was 15 minutes to Kandy and declared in pilot's jargon "Victor Mike Charlie." That meant Visual Met Conditions or in other words normal weather. He had also spoken about "Visual Contact" (denoting clear visibility) and "Operations Normal" (signifying that all was well).

That was just three to four minutes before Air Traffic Controllers lost radio contact with the Mi-17. As time went by, an SLAF helicopter with a rescue team on board began a search that extended to Hasalaka, Randenigala and adjoining areas. The chopper spotted the wreckage engulfed in flames rising sky high and reported to Air Traffic Controllers. They could not land but remained airborne for a while reporting on what they observed on the ground. Later, they touched down in an area closeby to drop the rescue team. By the time they reached the wreckage site, police assisted by villagers had already taken the charred bodies out. There were 13 of them.

What happened to the SLAF Mi-17 which by Squadron Leader Perera's own admission was flying in good weather with nothing adverse to report to Air Traffic Controllers. Senior Air Force officials do not rule out the possibility of an LTTE missile attack or even an on board explosion that led to the crash. These were among several possibilities that were being probed. 

Air Force Commander Jayalath Weerakoddy last night appointed a six-member team of senior officers headed by Chief of Staff Donald Perera to probe the possible causes that led to the mystery crash. In addition to this probe, Defence Ministry sources said last night they were also examining the possibility of obtaining foreign assistance to ascertain what may have gone wrong. 

In an earlier transmission to the SLAF Air Traffic Controlers, Sqn. Ldr. Perera is reported to have said there were 15 passengers on board less than half the full complement which the Mi-17 could carry. However, only 13 bodies were recovered by last evening with the fate of two passengers not known. The SLAF is unable to maintain passenger manifests of VIP chopper flights.

See more pictures

Fowzie escapes unhurt

A backup vehicle in the convoy carrying Minister A.H.M. Fowzie overturned yesterday at Nelundeniya, as he was heading towards Aranayake where Minister M. H. M. Ashraff was killed in a helicopter crash.

Three security personnel of Mr. Fowzie were injured in the incident, but the minister escaped unhurt, the Minister's son, Nauzer Fowzie, told The Sunday Times.

Ashraff's last interview

Break with PA, not with CBK

By Hiranthi Fernando
In the last interview before his tragic death yesterday Minister and NUA leader M.H.M. Ashraff vowed to go all out to defeat the PA in the Batticaloa District.

He told The Sunday Times that his sincere prayer was that the PA should be disqualified in Batticaloa. 

"We are going to have a special campaign to ensure that the PA does not get even the minimum five percent of the votes for qualification," he said.

Asserting that the NUA was a separate political party, he said his party's manifesto would be released on its first national convention in Ampara next Saturday.

"With a heavy heart I am bidding goodbye to the politics of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress. Although I have been branded a communalist for my conviction, I believe most leaders of the majority communities and even my community are not capable of looking beyond their noses.

"In Jaffna, the PA withdrew at the last moment. If the EPDP's Douglas Devananda has the freedom to ask for votes only for his party in Jaffna, surely I also have the freedom to ask for votes in 13 districts.

"Where Batticaloa district is concerned, we will go all out to defeat the PA. We will carry out intense campaign and we hope the PA will not get even the five percent required for qualification.

"As regards Hambantota District, we are sad and disturbed that our group leader was kidnapped. We have every reason to believe that the UNP had no interest in kidnapping our group leader. Therefore, we are not interested in who wins the Hambantota District

"We hope the PA will win in Galle and Matara, though NUA leaders won't participate in the campaign. At Nuwara Eliya, we hope the PA will win and we will work for that mainly because we have an electoral deal with the CWC.

"The PA General secretary D.M. Jayaratne is reported to ave made a statement to the effect that the NUA has not yet been admitted into the PA and the agreement signed between me and the General Secretary of the PA is subject to ratification by the Executive Committee. 

"We thank him very much for giving us the freedom to decide what we should do at the election. The country needs to know right there is neither electoral agreement nor an understanding between the PA and the NUA.

"Although the agreement we signed with President Kumaratunga in 1994 has lapsed, we believed that it at least had a moral binding until a fresh agreement is signed. We are sad to say the PA has violated one of the fundamental provisions of the accord, but we extend our best wishes to President Kumaratunga and her party."

Mixed results for PA, UNP

The ruling People's Alliance is rated much higher than the UNP in finding a solution to the ethnic conflict but the UNP is rated better in managing the economy, an opinion poll has revealed.

The poll made available to The Sunday Times by one of the country's leading research agencies said 41 percent of those interviewed believed that the PA was the best party to find the solution while only nine percent favoured the UNP. 

But the UNP was rated equally good or better than the PA in managing the economy, unemployment, the cost of living and related factors, according to the poll conducted among 1299 people from August 30 to September 7 by the Org Marg Smart.

The poll showed that the ethnic crisis is the key issue for the people today and 46 percent said they would like to see the war ended immediately.

A major negative for the PA was in respect of the family quality life. As many as 40 percent said life has got worse while 42 percent said it was no better than six years ago, representing a staggering 82 percent indictment on the drop in the quality of life. Only 13 percent of the people thought that life had become better. 

See full survey report 

Midnight funeral for Ashraff

The funeral of Minister M.H.M. Asharff was held late last night at Colombo's Jawatta Muslim burial ground in keeping with his last wishes. 

According to family members, he had requested his funeral be held within four hours of his death.

Despite the short notice hundreds turned up for the the funeral and special prayers were held at mosques, especially in the eastern province.

Meanwhile bodyguards of Minister A.H.M.Fowize were forced to open fire into the air to protect him as mourners surrounded him when he went to Mr. Ashraff's residence to pay his last respects. Eyewitnesses said Mr. Fowzie was nearly manhandled when the bodyguards intervened.

Final act

By a strange co-incidence, almost at the same time as the ill fated Mi-17 helicopter crashed, a fax from Minister M. H. M. Ashraff, both as SLMC leader and NUA Convenor was being circulated to the media. 

It said both the SLMC and the NUA had severed links with the PA because of a statement issued by PA General Secretary D.M. Jayaratne that the NUA should not use photographs of President Kumara-tunga in its poster campaigns. Mr. Ashraff's statement also said he had instructed his party candidates not to use the President's picture.


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