Chopper hits mountain soon after minister announces break with PA
Ashraff killed in helicopter crash

Mr. M. H. M. Ashraff, leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and Minister of Ports Development, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation was killed yesterday with 14 others when a hired SLAF helicopter hit Urakande close to Bible Rock in the Aranayake police area 25 minutes after take-off from Police Park at 9.05 yesterday morning.

Minutes before Ashraff 52, boarded the aircraft, he had issued a statement announcing that both the SLMC and his new National Unity Alliance (NUA) will have nothing to do with the People’s Alliance. The 2-paragraph statement issued on Ashraff’s behalf had reached the press before first news of the crash.

The SLAF confirmed the crash but declined to name the 5-member crew on board the aircraft. Police said that Ashraff’s companions included three bodyguards, members of his staff and party people including a candidate for Digamadulla who was running alongside Ashraff on the PA ticket.

The minister had originally been scheduled to fly to the Eastern Province on Friday evening but had postponed his departure due to an important party meeting which went on till 11 p.m. on Friday, SLAF sources said.

Local police said that the helicopter had caught fire after the crash and villagers had reported seeing nine charred bodies. Two assault rifles were also found in the area.

Air Force sources said that although there were no signs of bad weather in the area, the helicopter’s pilot had contacted air traffic controllers saying they had problems of visibility and were lowering their altitude.

The SLAF spokesman, Wing Commander Ajith Wijesundera said that the helicopter was airworthy and had no defects. It had been hired through Helitours, their commercial wing, as was the usual practice of the minister.

A Colombo datelined AFP report quoted police saying that "the aircraft crashed in a fireball. We can say that there are no survivors. The minister was among those on board and we can confirm his death."

Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake had also boarded a helicopter from Police Park on Saturday morning and safely reached his destination at Polonnaruwa where the PA is to launch its campaign on Sunday.

Ashraff’s statement breaking with the PA was issued on a National Unity Alliance letterhead. It said that following PA General Secretary D.M. Jayaratne’s announcement that the NUA was not a constituent of the PA, "from today, neither the NUA nor the SLMC will have anything to do with the PA."

It further said that Ashraff had already directed his candidates not to use President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s photograph in their propaganda material.

A ports ministry official said that among those killed were Messrs. Kadirgamathamby, a candidate for Digamadulla, two policemen from the Ministerial Security Division, Chief Inspector Ajith Vithanagamage, the minister’s chief security officer, personal stenographer, Mr. Periyathamby.

The SLAF said that the pilot, co-pilot, engineer, loadmaster and gunner who crewed the aircraft had died but did not name them.

Large crowds were flocking to the scene of the crash accessible only on foot after a long climb up the mountainside.

Mr. Ashraff is survived by his wife and 18-year-old son, Ahmed Amman. His funeral was due to take place at the Jawatte Muslim burial ground yesterday evening.