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Sydney - Rescuers searched Saturday for a helicopter carrying two Australians and a New Zealander which was feared to have crashed in Papua New Guinea's rugged highlands after sending a distress call.
Hevilift, a Singapore-based air charter company catering to mining and energy operators, said the Bell 206 went missing on Friday afternoon in the mountainous Southern Highlands region with two pilots and an engineer on board.
The chopper had issued a mayday call five minutes after taking off from an InterOil drill rig in conditions of low cloud and reduced visibility.
“Aircraft in the vicinity heard the distress call from the helicopter,” Hevilift said.
“A localised search using Hevilift helicopters... commenced immediately, but deteriorating weather meant the helicopters were unable to search for long before the weather and last light closed down the search.”
Efforts resumed at dawn but Hevilift said the helicopter was yet to be found, and no rescue beacon signals had been detected from the “thickly forested” region where it was believed to have gone down.
Seven helicopters were involved in Saturday's hunt along with a Dornier 328 fixed-wing airplane dispatched from Australia which was specially equipped to pick up electronic signals.
PNG and Australian military aircraft also offered assistance, with Hevilift describing weather conditions as “favourable”.
The helicopter was thought to have gone down at Kikori, a densely wooded and oil-rich settlement at the head of the Gulf of Papua, according to PNG aviation officials. They were yet to find the wreckage and could not confirm fatalities.
Australia's foreign office said two of its citizens, men aged 37 and 42, had been on board the lost chopper, along with a New Zealand man, 50.
Aviation accidents are common in Papua New Guinea, where rugged terrain and lack of internal connecting roads make air travel crucial for its six million citizens and the growing numbers of oil, gas and mining workers.
More than 20 planes have crashed in PNG since 2000 including a fiery Airlines PNG accident which killed 28 people in October, when a Bombardier Dash 8 ploughed into a dense forest in poor weather. - Sapa-AFP