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MOSCOW (AFP) – Nineteen people, including children, died on Tuesday when a MI-8 helicopter crashed in the nearly impassable taiga in eastern Siberia, the latest disaster to hit Russia’s accident-prone aviation industry.

A Moscow-based aviation committee, citing the surviving crew, said 19 of the 28 people on board were killed, but the emergencies ministry refused to confirm the toll.

The ministry said rescue teams were having a hard time reaching the crash site in the mountainous woods of the northern Yakutia region, with efforts hampered by bad weather.

“There were three crew members and 25 passengers on board,” the Interstate Aviation Committee said in a statement. “Nineteen people died, the aircraft burnt down.”

Of the 25 passengers, 11 were children, officials said without providing further details.

The accident apparently happened when the Polar Airlines helicopter performed a hard landing in poor weather, 28 miles northwest of the small town of Deputatsky in Yakutia.

The first deputy head of the Interstate Aviation Committee, Alexander Filatov, told AFP he had been notified of the death toll through a telegram from aviation officials in Yakutia, who were able to communicate with the crew after the crash.

But a spokeswoman for the emergencies ministry, Irina Rossius, said she could not give a toll until some of the 240 rescuers and eight aircraft dispatched to the area find the helicopter and victims.

Workers reached the coordinates of the crash site around midnight local time, battling heavy fog, but failed to find any survivors or bodies, or even the helicopter’s debris, Rossius told AFP.

A spokesman for the regional government in Yakutia, Afanasy Yegorov, said the crash site was so difficult to reach that the rescue teams had to land their aircraft some 18 miles away and continue their journey using all-terrain vehicles.

He, too, declined to give casualty figures.

“Don’t be in a hurry to bury the people,” he told AFP, adding that he personally knew some of the passengers.

He said the helicopter was performing a regular passenger flight from the town of Deputatsky to the town of Kazachye and was flying over a mountain range when a downward stream of air pushed it to the ground.

Deputy head of the regional investigative committee Nina Kalyush said in televised comments that a probe was launched into the accident.

Russia’s aviation industry remains blighted by repeated accidents involving its ageing fleet of planes and helicopters.

Poor maintenance and lax safety precautions are also often blamed for frequent accidents.

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