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Kenya mourns defense chief killed in helicopter crash

Saturday April 20, 2024

NAIROBI, KENYA — Kenya began three days of mourning on Friday after its defense chief and nine other senior officers were killed in a helicopter crash, the latest military accident involving a high-profile figure.

A 19-gun salute will take place Saturday in a military tribute to General Francis Omondi Ogolla, the chief of the Kenya Defense Forces, in the presence of President William Ruto, the defense ministry announced.

Ogolla was killed when his helicopter went down shortly after takeoff in a remote forested area of northwestern Kenya on Thursday.

"A distinguished four-star general has fallen in the course of duty and service of the country," Ruto said, announcing the deaths that evening.

He said the Air Force had dispatched an investigation team to establish the cause of the accident.

Ruto grieved with Ogolla's family at a ceremony in Nairobi on Friday as the nation began observing the mourning period, with the Kenyan flag flying at half-mast across the country and at missions abroad.

"Yesterday was truly a very, very tragic day," the president said. "This is a big loss to the country because General Ogolla made a whole difference in the security of the country."

The family said in a statement that a funeral would be Sunday at Ogolla's home in Siaya in the west of the country, followed by a memorial service in a Nairobi suburb on April 26.

The bodies of the victims, draped in Kenyan flags, were returned to a military base in Nairobi on an air force plane late Thursday.

One of the officers, Brigadier Swale Saidi, was buried in the Indian Ocean town of Kilifi on Friday and other funerals are expected in the coming days.

Ogolla, a trained fighter pilot, had been promoted to the defense chief role by Ruto just a year ago and was about to mark 40 years of military service.

He had been visiting troops deployed in a security operation in the North Rift region, which is plagued by violence caused by armed bandits and cattle rustlers.

Ogolla's daughter Lorna Ogolla said in a post on LinkedIn that her father died "doing what he did best for the better part of the last 40 years — trying to keep Kenya safe."

Messages of condolence were sent from across the country and the African continent as well as the United Nations, the United States and other Kenyan allies.

"From combating terrorist threats posed by al-Shabab to leading efforts to bolster regional cooperation across a range of domains, he has left an indelible mark," U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement.

The Standard newspaper said it was the fifth armed forces chopper crash in 12 months, with claims that Kenya's military aircraft were old and poorly maintained.

In June 2021, at least 10 soldiers were killed when their helicopter crashed during a training exercise south of Nairobi.

Ogolla is among a number of high-profile victims of air accidents in Kenya. In 2012, internal security minister George Saitoti, seen as a possible presidential candidate, was among six people killed in a police helicopter crash.

Kenya has one of the largest military budgets in the East Africa region, at $1.1 billion for the financial year ending in June 2024, according to government statistics.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimated in its 2024 report, The Military Balance, the total number of active armed forces at 24,100.

The East African nation is a major contributor to U.N. peacekeeping operations and also deploys troops for missions in the region.

Ogolla, a married father of two, joined the KDF in April 1984, rising through the ranks to command the Kenyan Air Force in 2018, a post he held for three years before becoming vice chief of the defense forces in 2021 and then chief in April 2023.


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