Kenya's minister for internal security George Saitoti, his deputy and four others were killed in a helicopter crash outside Nairobi, the government said Sunday. Saitoti was expected to run for president in next year's election.
AFP - Kenya's Internal Security Minister George Saitoti, who planned to run for the presidency next year, was killed Sunday with five others in a police helicopter crash near Nairobi, officials said.
Saitoti, a veteran politician of 66, was a key figure in his country's fight against Al-Qaeda-affiliated Shebab insurgents in neighbouring Somalia.
He died along with Joshua Orwa Ojode, the assistant minister for internal security, the two pilots -- including a woman -- and two bodyguards when the helicopter came down in the Ngong hills outside the capital.
President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga paid tribute to Saitoti, who played a prominent role in the campaign against Somali insurgents, blamed for a series of terror attacks and kidnappings on Kenyan soil.
"The government will ensure a thorough probe" into the cause of the crash, Odinga told journalists at the crash site.
Saitoti was on his way to attend a religious ceremony in western Kenya when the Eurocopter came down in the Kibuku forest around 8:30 am (0530 GMT) shortly after taking off from Nairobi's Wilson airport.
An AFP journalist on the scene saw six bodies charred beyond recognition being removed from the wreckage. The helicopter was entirely destroyed. Wads of bank notes lay scattered at the crash site.
Investigators from the police, the Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) and the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority sealed off the scene to try and establish the cause of the accident.
"Most probably it was caused by bad weather, it was foggy at the time it went down," a police officer involved in the investigation told AFP.
Another police source said Kenya had acquired the aircraft, which was fitted with state-of-the-art equipment, just five months ago.
A witness at the scene described the helicopter as having "hovered up there and looked like it was turning back" before coming down.
Another witness, farmer Ole Tolei, told AFP that he had seen the aircraft "flying very low. It came down suddenly and we heard a loud explosion, and then it burst into flames."
Saitoti's ministerial role meant he controlled the state's top investigative arms, the National Security Intelligence Service and the Criminal Investigation Department.
Kenya sent thousands of troops into southern Somalia in October last year to fight the Shebab and protect its border. It was Saitoti who made the first public announcement of the invasion, a full two days after Kenyan troops crossed the border.
The Kenyan force has since been joined by Ethiopia in a bid to rout the Islamist group from their strongholds in the south and centre of the country.
Since Kenyan troops entered Somalia, several people have been killed in a series of bomb attacks in border areas, and a bomb in a Nairobi shopping centre last month wounded 38 people.
But Saitoti declared recently that the government would not be cowed by "terrorists".
Saitoti had announced that he was standing as a candidate to succeed Kibaki in the 2013 presidential election.
On Sunday, Kibaki paid tribute to those killed.
The deaths were "a devastating loss to our country," he said in a statement.
"Minister Saitoti will forever be remembered as a hardworking and determined public servant who dedicated his time to the service of the Kenyan people," he said.
Saitoti had also served as finance minister and he was vice-president in the administration of Daniel Arap Moi from 1989-1997 and again from 1999-2002.
He jumped ship ahead of the 2002 elections to join the opposition camp led by Mwai Kibaki after Moi, constitutionally barred from standing again, chose the then little-known Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya's founding father, as his successor.