Update 30 October: Sadly, after days of rumours and unverified reports, Pedro Morenés has now confirmed that the bodies of the three crew were in the cabin of the fuselage. He is coming in for significant criticism for the confusion of earlier reports, and the lack of confirmation of rumours which have tragically turned out to be correct, but the Government’s message is that after the fiasco of the unverified Senegalese reports via Morocco of the men’s survival, Madrid was not prepared to confirm anything until early diver reports were proven correct, and families had been contacted. The political fall-out will rumble on, but the fact is that these men tragically lost their lives in the crash.
Update 26 October: Defence minister Pedro Morenés has said that the search area has now been widened, and that the teams are looking for signs of the missing airmen in the area of the crash and in any fishing vessels or other crafts within 400km of the area just south of Gran Canaria where the helicopter went down. The minister said that the Government was not ruling out any hypothesis, including that the airmen have been kidnapped. Families of the missing men are meanwhile demanding information which they say they are increasingly sure the Government is withholding from them, though Morenés says that no ransom demand has been received, and that the Government is completely in the dark as to the men’s whereabouts.
Spanish social media, however, is alive with suspicions that the Government will not want another “terrorist” incident on the eve of a general election – the last PP Government was swept from office after terrorists bombed trains in Madrid’s Atocha station shortly before the election in which Zapatero’s PSOE came to power. Others, though, more analytically, say that if this is indeed the case, then the lesson hasn’t been learned because that electoral loss was the result of trying to sweep the facts under the carpet and deny the terrorist links which were not only widely accepted, but confirmed virtually on the eve of the election.
For the moment, Spain is in furious damage-limitation and face-saving mode, blaming Morocco for not verifying the information from Senegal that the airmen had been picked up by a fishing boat and were safe, and seeking to show how the Spanish forces are pulling out all the stops to find the men who have now been missing for four days.
Update 25 October: Fears and confusion continue to mount as the whereabouts of the three missing airmen remain unclear. A wide search has been underway over the past 48 hours but whilst the fuselage of the helicopter and the escape life raft from which the flare was released have been found, there is no sign of the servicemen. It is now evident that reports that they were collected by fishing boat were first released by Senegal to Morocco, which then informed Spain.
Spain acknowledges that the reports were not confirmed but expresses mystification as to why the report would have been issued if it were not correct. Some have suggested that with the airmen being incomunicado for so long, they might be being held hostage, but with no ransom demand being issued from any quarter, that itself is seen as an explanation little better than grasping at straws.
Update 10pm: After initial jubilation over the survival and rescue of the three crew members, the Spanish authorities say that the Morrocan reports were not verified, and that they still have had no actual contact with any of the helicopter personnel. Defence minister Pedro Morenés said that they were quite possibly still on the reported fishing boat, and that communication was impossible, but that the Ministry of Defence has no option but to declare them missing while it awaits further information or confirmation about their whereabouts. Meanwhile, the search operation is focused on getting to the helicopter fuselage which now lies at a depth of some 40m.
Original post 23 October: Sgt Johnander Ojeda from Gran Canaria, a Spanish Air Force mechanic, was the only survivor of a search and rescue helicopter crash off Fuerteventura in March last year (link), and last night he was again plucked from the sea when the helicopter he was in went down 500km from Gran Canaria as they were flying back from training exercises off Senegal. Mercifully on this occasion all three on board survived, being rescued after six hours on a life raft by a Moroccan patrol coordinating with a Spanish aircraft after rescue flares were seen. The Ministry of Defence has thanked Morocco for its help in rescuing the airmen and bringing them to land safely.