Key Zimbabwean opposition leader Roy Bennett died in a helicopter crash in a remote part of the U.S. state of New Mexico that also killed four others and left one injured.
State Police Lt. Elizabeth Armijo confirmed Bennett’s death Thursday, a day after a helicopter carrying him and five others went down in a mountainous rural area of northern New Mexico. Details of why the 60-year-old Bennett was in the area were not immediately available.
Obert Gutu, spokesman for Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change opposition party, said the loss of Bennett, a white man who spoke fluent Shona and drew the wrath of former President Robert Mugabe, was tragic.
The injured victim of the crash called 911 after the helicopter went down Wednesday evening near the Colorado state line, and authorities launched a search. They said the response was slow because of the rugged terrain and remote area, which has few roads.
Engulfed in flames, the wreckage was spotted on the ranch property east of the small community of Raton. The fire had charred a large area around the crash site.
The crash killed Bennett’s wife; pilot Jamie Coleman Dodd, 57, of Trinidad, Colorado; co-pilot Paul Cobb, 67, of Conroe, Texas; and Charles Ryland Burnett, 61, of Houston.
Authorities say the limited information they have indicated the helicopter was flying from Raton to the community of Folsom, less than 40 miles away.
In Zimbabwe, Tendai Biti, a prominent opposition leader and a former finance minister, tweeted that the Bennetts’ “tragic passing” was “a blow to our struggle.”
Bennett, treasurer-general of the MDC-T party, won a devoted following of black Zimbabweans for passionately advocating political change. He was known as “Pachedu,” meaning “one of us” in Shona and was often called the sharpest thorn in Mugabe’s side. He won a parliamentary seat in a rural constituency despite being white, angering the strongman and his ruling ZANU-PF party.
After receiving death threats, Bennett fled Zimbabwe but returned in 2009 after his party nominated him for the deputy agriculture minister in a coalition government with Mugabe’s ZANU-PF. Mugabe, who had repeatedly alleged Bennett was the opposition party’s contact with foreign funders, refused to swear him in.
Bennett later returned to South Africa but remained a vocal critic of Mugabe’s rule. He also criticized his former party for allegedly enjoying the comforts of government while ordinary Zimbabweans suffered.
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