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NOUMÉA, New Caledonia (November 28, 2000 - Oceania Flash/SPC)---Seven persons, including four top executives from the SMSP nickel mining company, died in a helicopter crash Tuesday. The accident occurred in a mountainous region of the French territory's main island, RFO radio told Oceania Flash.

The chopper was reported to have run into foggy conditions early Tuesday in the Canala area before it crashed.

Witnesses in nearby villages said they heard the aircraft make several passes and noticed what they called a "strange noise" just before it crashed.

The helicopter, which had just passed airworthiness tests, was carrying four top SMSP (Société Minière du Sud Pacifique) executives, including its Kanak Chairman, Raphaël Pidjot, as well as its general, financial and technical managers.

Two Canadians, including Canadian nickel company Falconbridge scientist Pierre Tholot and consultant Robert Gardiner, also are among the victims.

Falconbridge and SMSP have been exploring further development of a major joint venture project for a new mining facility in the nearby Nakéti region and already have built a pilot plant there.

SMSP, of which New Caledonia's Northern Province is a major shareholder, is also regarded in the French territory as a crucial tool in the economic "re-balancing" process between the traditionally affluent Southern province and the less prosperous Northern province.

All occupants of the helicopter, including the pilot, are believed to have died instantly, a doctor who went to the site said.

Reactions of shock and dismay at the tragedy are unanimous from all of New Caledonia's political parties and top officials.

The pro-independence FLNKS (National Kanak Socialist Liberation Front) suspended its annual congress, which started earlier this week.

Former SMSP Chairman André Dang said the deaths were "a huge loss for the entire country."

France's representative, High Commissioner Thierry Lataste, presented his condolences on behalf of the French government "to the victims and to the whole of New Caledonia."

SMSP's direct competitor, Société Le Nickel (SLN), issued a statement expressing sorrow at the tragedy.

Continuing bad weather in the area has so far prevented other helicopters from reaching the crash site in the rugged, mountainous area.

A Northern province government spokesperson said late Tuesday that steps are being taken for a land-based mission, possibly including New Caledonia's Armed Forces, to be sent to the area early on Wednesday to formally identity the victims.

New Caledonia is the world's third largest nickel producer.

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