Helicopter with Zimbabwe opposition leader crashes, kills 5

FILE - In this Oct. 16, 2009 file photo, Senior Zimbabwean MDC opposition official Roy Bennett, right, and his wife Heather, relax at a friends home in Mutare about 200 km east of Harare, Zimbabwe, following his release from prison. A fiery helicopter crash killed Bennett and his wife, while on holiday in a remote part of the U.S. state of New Mexico, authorities said Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 16, 2009, file photo, shows Senior Zimbabwean MDC opposition official Roy Bennett, left, and his wife Heather, relax at a friends home in Mutare about 200 km east of Harare, Zimbabwe, following his release from prison. A fiery helicopter crash killed Bennett and his wife, while on holiday in a remote part of the U.S. state of New Mexico, authorities said Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018.
FILE - In this May, 10, 2010, file photo, Roy Bennett, center left, leaves the High Court in Harare, Zimbabwe, after he was acquitted of terrorism charges. New Mexico State Police said Thursday, Jan. 18 2018, that Zimbabwean opposition leader Roy Bennett died in helicopter crash. The crash on Wednesday, Jan. 17, carrying Bennett and five others went down in a mountainous rural area of northern New Mexico. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi, File)

RATON, N.M. — A group of prominent friends, including a key Zimbabwean opposition leader and a Texas-based investor and philanthropist, was heading to a ranch in the U.S. state of New Mexico when their helicopter crashed and burned in a remote area, killing five people aboard.

Friends and family members confirmed Thursday that opposition leader Roy Bennett and his wife, Heather, had traveled to New Mexico to spend their holiday with friend and wealthy businessman Charles Burnett III at his ranch. Burnett's friends, pilot Jamie Coleman Dodd of Colorado and co-pilot Paul Cobb of Texas, were ferrying the group aboard a Huey UH-1 when it went down after dark Wednesday.

All five died, according to New Mexico State Police.

The only survivor was Andra Cobb, the co-pilot's daughter who was in a long-term relationship with Burnett. She was able to escape before the helicopter burst into flames.

Her voice breaking, Martha Cobb told The Associated Press that her 39-year-old daughter was hospitalized with broken bones.

"She's just very distraught," the mother said in a telephone interview. "I'm just glad my daughter is OK, but I hate that my husband of 41 years is gone."

Martha Cobb and her husband had befriended the Bennetts while traveling on cruises.

Roy Bennett, 60, treasurer-general of the Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change opposition party, won a devoted following of black Zimbabweans for passionately advocating political change.

Bennett, a white man who spoke fluent Shona and drew the wrath of former President Robert Mugabe, survived a traumatic year in jail and death threats over his work. He was known as "Pachedu," meaning "one of us" in Shona and was often called the sharpest thorn in Mugabe's side.

Obert Gutu, spokesman for the MDC-T party, described Bennett's death as a "huge and tragic loss."

Burnett, born in England, inherited part of a family fortune and had been friends for some time with the two pilots, said his personal lawyer, Martyn Hill.

Both Dodd and Cobb were experienced aviators who would not have taken unnecessary risks in the helicopter, Hill said. Cobb served in Vietnam and survived being shot down, he said.

A 911 call from Andra Cobb alerted authorities to the crash, whose cause is under investigation. There was no indication of bad weather that night.

Officials launched a search but said the response was slow because of the rugged terrain and lack of access. Engulfed in flames, the wreckage of the helicopter registered to an aviation company linked to Burnett was spotted on a ranch.

The group was heading to the Emery Gap Ranch, a mountainous property on the Colorado-New Mexico border. Burnett bought it in February 2017, said Sam Middleton, a real estate broker in Lubbock, Texas, who helped with the purchase.

Middleton called Burnett a "fun loving" person who enjoyed entertaining, at times extravagantly.

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.

___

Merchant reported from Houston. Associated Press writers Farai Mutsaka in Harare, Zimbabwe, Mary Hudetz in Albuquerque, and Paul Davenport in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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