By Mary Hudetz and Farai Mutsaka / Associated Press
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A fiery helicopter crash killed key Zimbabwean opposition leader Roy Bennett while on holiday in a remote part of the U.S. state of New Mexico and four others aboard, friends and authorities said.
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. One person survived the crash, whose cause was not yet known.
Obert Gutu, spokesman for Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change opposition party, described the death of Bennett, 60, a white man who spoke fluent Shona and drew the wrath of former President Robert Mugabe, as a “huge and tragic loss.” Bennett’s wife, Heather, also died, Gutu said.
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.
The crash’s only survivor was Andra Cobb, 39, who said she was able to escape before the helicopter burst into flames, according to her mother. Andra Cobb’s 67-year-old father, Paul, of Conroe, Texas, was the co-pilot and her longtime boyfriend, Charles Burnett III, 61, of Houston, also was killed, loved ones and authorities said.
“She’s just very distraught,” mother Martha Cobb said in a telephone interview, her voice breaking. “I’m just glad my daughter is OK, but I hate that my husband of 41 years is gone.”
Andra Cobb, who has been hospitalized with broken bones, called 911 after the helicopter went down Wednesday evening near the New Mexico-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 a ranch.
The helicopter was heading to a ranch near the state line that Burnett owned, said Martha Cobb, adding that she and her husband had befriended Bennett and his wife while traveling together on cruises.
Also killed was pilot Jamie Coleman Dodd, 57, of Trinidad, Colorado.
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.” David Coltart, an opposition figure, said the couple were “two of Zimbabwe’s greatest patriots.”
In 2004, Roy Bennett was jailed for a year for assaulting a Cabinet minister who had said Bennett’s “forefathers were thieves and murderers” during a parliamentary debate. An enraged Bennett charged the minister, who fell to the floor.
He emerged from prison rail-thin and scarred from repeated sunburns. He told of the mistreatment of fellow prisoners, some of whom he said had starved to death in their cells.
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.
Mutsaka reported from Harare, Zimbabwe. AP writers Nomaan Merchant in Houston and Paul Davenport in Phoenix contributed to this report.