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Helicopter crash kills 18 in Venezuela

Associated Press / May 4, 2009
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CARACAS - Seventeen soldiers and a civilian were killed when a military helicopter crashed yesterday near the Colombian border, the state news agency reported.

A brigadier general was among those killed.

President Hugo Chávez said the soldiers were patrolling the 1,400-mile border separating Venezuela and Colombia when the local military base lost contact with its Mi-17 helicopter shortly after midday.

The helicopter crashed near the town of El Alto de Rubio, the state-run Bolivarian News Agency reported.

Two pilots and the entire crew were killed. Army Brigadier General Domingo Alberto Feneite and Cristian Velazquez, a civilian, were among the victims, according to the state news agency.

Chávez sent condolences to the families of the victims during his weekly television and radio program.

"They died while they were on duty and serving the fatherland," he said.

Neither Chávez nor the Venezuelan military mentioned the cause of the crash.

Chávez lamented that dozens of Venezuelan soldiers have lost their lives in recent years trying to prevent violence from neighboring Colombia's decades-long armed conflict from spilling across the border into Venezuela.

The socialist leader also rebuked US allegations that his government has failed to prevent border incursions by Colombian rebels and right-wing paramilitaries.

"They say we don't patrol the border. How many lives has Colombia's conflict cost us Venezuelans? Eighteen Venezuelans dead today," Chávez said.