Zimbabwe opposition party leader killed in New Mexico crash

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(CNN) — Key Zimbabwe opposition leader Roy Bennett died Wednesday in a helicopter crash in a remote area in northeastern New Mexico, authorities said Thursday.

Four other people, including the pilot and co-pilot, also died in the crash, New Mexico State Police said.

One passenger, who suffered serious injuries, is expected to survive, state police said.

Bennett, 60, was listed as a resident of Colorado and South Africa. The other victims were identified as Bennett’s wife, Heather Bennett, 55, of Colorado; pilot Jamie Coleman Dodd, 57, of Trinidad, Colorado; co-pilot Paul Cobb, 67, of Conroe, Texas, and Charles Ryland Burnett, 61, Houston.

The group first flew from Houston on Wednesday evening to the Raton Airport in New Mexico, northeast of Santa Fe, CNN affiliate KOAT reported.

They boarded a helicopter from Raton bound for Folsom, New Mexico, before crashing several miles east of Raton, according to authorities.

One victim managed to call 911, but couldn’t relay the exact location of the crash. Law enforcement responded and began searching for the downed helicopter. But the rugged terrain and limited road access hampered the response, state police said.

Ranchers eventually spotted the helicopter, which was engulfed in flames. The fire charred the victims’ bodies, making it difficult to identify them, authorities said.

Bennett, a founding member of the Movement for Democratic Change, was a charismatic and popular grassroots leader, a party national spokesman said in a statement. He was born in Zimbabwe, but lived in South Africa.

Tributes poured in for Bennett.

“A Zimbabwean friend once said of Roy that he was the only white man whom he would forget was white when together,” Nicole Fritz tweeted.

“Speaks to Roy’s commitment to a democratic Zimbabwe, his care for his communities and his proficiency in indigenous languages which puts so many of us to shame.”

David Coltart, a former Zimbabwean education minister, said he was devastated and at a loss for words.

“They were two of Zimbabwe’s greatest patriots,” he tweeted, referring to Bennett and his wife. ” My condolences are extended to their family & friends.”

Former Zimbabwean finance minister Tendai Biti said his death is a major loss.

“What a blow … to our struggle,” he tweeted. “I can’t believe I will never speak to you again.”

U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe Harry K. Thomas expressed condolences to the Bennetts’ family in a tweet, saying the deaths were “a tragic loss.”

Known as Pachedu, Bennett was also a successful farmer in Chimanimani, a mountainous region in eastern Zimbabwe, said Obert Chaurura Gutu, the party spokesman.

“His work with the local farming communities in Chimanimani district is very well documented and he was also a renowned philanthropist who assisted hundreds of local villagers with school fees for their children and other necessary requirements to look after their families,” Gutu said.

He said Bennett was “a resolute and committed fighter for democratic change in Zimbabwe.”

“This monumental tragedy is a deep wound that will never heal,” Gutu said.

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating cause of the crash.

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