OSLO/MOSCOW: Norwegian rescuers searched in vain on Thursday for a Russian helicopter missing at sea with eight people aboard off the coast of the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard.
“We have two helicopters and several small boats searching the area,” Tore Hongset — the leader of the rescue coordination centre — told Reuters.
Snow and big waves hampered the search after nightfall.
Russia’s emergency ministry said the five crew and three passengers were Russians. The Russian-made Mil Mi-8 aircraft had been reported missing around 1335 GMT.
“So far no finds have been made,” the Norwegian rescue coordination centre said in a statement more than three hours after the aircraft went missing.
It added that some oil had been observed near Cape Heer, close to the helicopter’s destination.
The hope was that the helicopter had ditched and was floating or that the eight had evacuated into life rafts.
The three passengers were working for Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, the Russian Energy Ministry said in a statement.
The helicopter was on its way from the abandoned Pyramiden settlement to the coal mining port of Barentsburg but was later confirmed to have gone down in the ocean a few kilometres from its destination.
Six vessels were in the area, according to shipping data from Marinetraffic.com. The Polarsyssel — the ship of the governor of Svalbard — was coordinating the search.
The Russian coal company Arktikugol runs the coal mine at Barentsburg, which employs Russian and Ukrainian miners.
An official at the Russian company Convers Avia Air told Reuters that it owned the helicopter and had lost communication with it.
“For every minute that goes by, the risk of hypothermia and death rises,” Hongset told Norwegian broadcaster TV2.
Located around 700 kilometers (435 miles) north of the European mainland, Svalbard is governed under a treaty that grants NATO-member Norway sovereignty while allowing other signatories to do business and exploit natural resources.
More than 40 countries are parties to the treaty.
Moscow has maintained a presence on the islands for decades as a strategic foothold in the high north.