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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chopper Carrying Governor Vanishes

VLADIVOSTOK, Far East -- A helicopter carrying the governor of the oil-rich Sakhalin region and 16 others disappeared Wednesday over the northeastern Kamchatka Peninsula, prompting aircraft and ships to search the area's volcanoes and waters.

Efforts to find the Mi-8 helicopter with three crewmembers and 14 passengers, including Governor Igor Farkhutdinov, failed to yield any results before nightfall, said Anatoly Onishchenko, a duty officer of the Emergency Situations Ministry on Kamchatka.

Rescuers suspended their work until dawn, he said.

Farkhutdinov, accompanied by members of his administration, was flying from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the capital of Kamchatka, to the city of Severokurilsk to inspect winter preparations on the northern Kuril Islands and to examine the destruction caused by an Aug. 11 typhoon.

The Kurils are part of the Sakhalin region.

An hour after takeoff, the helicopter failed to make radio contact with air controllers at the appointed time, and rescuers launched the search effort.

Valery Molokanov, an officer in the Emergency Situation Ministry's crisis center in Moscow, told Rossia television that border guards never saw the helicopter cross the Kamchatka shoreline on its way to the islands.

President Vladimir Putin was keeping a close eye on the search Wednesday, local television reported. He received updates over the telephone throughout the day from Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu and his envoy in the Far Eastern Federal District, which includes Kamchatka.

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov instructed the military in the region to facilitate search efforts. "I ask you all to promptly start search and rescue work with all the means available to our military," he told navy commander Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov in a Moscow-Vladivostok video link.

Ivanov said rescuers should focus on the mountainous Kamchatka area along the projected path of the helicopter, where peaks and volcanoes reach up to about 2,000 meters. Four helicopters and a military plane explored a 200-kilometer swath Wednesday, and a plane was to deliver an additional rescue team from Moscow to the search area Thursday, Interfax reported. Several ships, meanwhile, combed the waters of the Pacific Ocean off the peninsula Wednesday.

Deputy Sakhalin Governor Ivan Malakhov suggested that more than 14 passengers may have been on board the Mi-8. He said 12 officials and five businessmen had flown with Farkhutdinov to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, but it was unclear how many of them continued on to the Kurils.

Farkhutdinov governs a region developing some of Asia's most ambitious petroleum projects. International consortiums led by ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch/Shell plan to eventually spend tens of billions of dollars to extract and market oil and natural gas from the Sakhalin Island shelf.

The remote region has many hard-to-access areas, and helicopters are often the only way to reach them. Crashes are all too common, with the cause often blamed on dilapidated aircraft or pilot error.

Krasnoyarsk Governor Alexander Lebed died in a crash last year when his helicopter's blades got caught on power lines. At hearings into the crash, which were continuing Wednesday, investigators are charging that the pilots did not obtain maps of their flight route ahead of takeoff and ignored forecasts of bad weather, Russian media reported.

The Emergency Situations Ministry said local weather conditions were fit for flight Wednesday.