Russian helicopter carrying eight passengers goes down off Spitzbergen

Helicopter in Barentsburg

Svalbard is more than 500 miles north of Norway's mainland.

A Mi-8 helicopter operated by Russian coal company Arktikugol crashed on Thursday with eight people on board into the sea off Svalbard.

Russian state news agencies Tass and RIA Novosti cited company deputy director Dmitry Zhelyazkov as saying there were eight people aboard - three pilots and five passengers.

Tore Hongset, leader of Norway's rescue co-ordination centre, said: "We've found oil spills and air bubbles rising to the surface, and a vessel in the area has observed what appears to be a submerged object".

Russian authorities were also checking to see whether they had a submarine that could be used in the frigid waters to look for the wreck, the Norwegian rescue service said.

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The aircraft, a Russian Mil Mi-8, went down in the afternoon two or three kilometres from Barentsburg, a Russian mining community in the archipelago.

Barentsburg is a Russian coal-mining town of about 500 people. Yet another crash near Pyramiden of the same type of helicopter left two dead in 1991.

Earlier, Hongset told Norwegian broadcaster TV2: "For every minute that goes by, the risk of hypothermia and death rises".

According to the Svalbard Treaty of 1920, the archipelago is under Norwegian sovereignty, but the exercise of sovereignty is subject to certain stipulations and citizens of signatory countries have equal rights to exploit its natural resources. Moscow has maintained a presence on the islands for decades as a strategic foothold in the high north.

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