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Weather Halts Nepal Copter Search

Heavy rain and fog cut short the search Sunday for 24 people whose helicopter disappeared over forested mountains in eastern Nepal, officials said.

A Nepalese Cabinet minister, a Finnish diplomat and several Western aid workers were among those on the helicopter that went missing Saturday, which was chartered by the World Wildlife Fund conservation group.

Tourism and Civil Aviation Minister Pradeep Gyawali said rescue teams flew to the Taplejung district in helicopters to hunt for the missing aircraft early Sunday, but poor weather forced them to return to nearby airports and security camps by midday.

Search operations would resume as soon as the weather improves in the thickly forested, mountainous region, Gyawali said, adding that 90 soldiers and policemen had been sent to assist a ground team searching the area on foot.

India's army was also assisting in the hunt for survivors, WWF Nepal said on its Web site Sunday. The army "plans to fly sorties across the border," and Indian security forces — already patrolling the two countries' border — were looking for clues, WWF said.

The missing helicopter's passengers included USAID Deputy Director in Nepal Margaret Alexander, Finnish Embassy Charge d'Affaires Pauli Mustonen and Nepal Forest Minister Gopal Rai and his wife. WWF said in a statement that seven of its employees were among the missing, including four Nepalis, an Australian, a Canadian and an American.

Several Nepali journalists, government officials and four crew members — two Russians and two Nepalis — were also on board the Russian-built MI-17.

The helicopter left Ghunsa village — where the passengers had been visiting a WWF conservation project — on Saturday morning and failed to arrive at Suketar village, its intended destination, a 20-minute flight away.

Both villages are in the Taplejung district, about 250 miles east of Nepal's capital, Katmandu.

"We hope that all on board will be rescued safely," WWF International's Director General James Leape said in a statement. "Our thoughts are with our missing colleagues and their families and WWF is doing everything it can to help the government of Nepal in its search for the helicopter."

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