By Sharon Bernstein | Reuters |
Exiled Zimbabwe opposition leader Roy Bennett and four other people were killed in a helicopter crash in a remote northern part of the U.S. state of New Mexico, officials and his political party said on Thursday.
The crash of a private Huey helicopter in rugged terrain near Raton, New Mexico, on Wednesday evening killed Bennett, 60, along with his wife, Heather Bennett, 55, James Coleman Dodd, 57, of Colorado, Charles Ryland Burnett, 61, of Texas and Paul Cobb, 67, of Texas, New Mexico State Police said.
Bennett, a former treasurer general of the opposition MDC party, was an important figure in Zimbabwean politics and served time in prison under former President Robert Mugabe. He recently told CNN that his country would never again let itself be ruled by a dictatorship.
“Roy was a resolute and committed fighter for democratic change in Zimbabwe,” the MDC said in a statement.
The party described Bennett as a charismatic grassroots politician and successful farmer in the country’s eastern Chimanimani District. He was fluent in Zimbabwe’s Shona language, it said, and had helped hundreds of impoverished villagers pay school fees for their children.
Though white, Bennett fought for the rights of black Zimbabweans, the party said, and had the nickname “Pachedu,” a Shona word that translates as “together” or “one of us.”
The National Transportation Safety Board said it was investigating the crash 15 miles (24 km) east of Raton.
The helicopter went down about 6pm on Wednesday about 15 miles (24km) east of the small city of Raton near the Colorado state line.
The injured victim of the crash called 911 after the helicopter went down 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 also killed pilot Jamie Coleman Dodd, 57, of Trinidad, Colorado; co-pilot Paul Cobb, 67, of Conroe, Texas; Charles Ryland Burnett, 61, of Houston.
Bennett, a white former farmer, was known as “Pachedu”, meaning “one of us” in Shona and was often called the sharpest thorn in the side of former president Robert Mugabe.
In 2004, 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.