NAIROBI — Kenya's Internal Security Minister George Saitoti was killed Sunday along with five others in a police helicopter crash near Nairobi, officials said.
Saitoti, 66, was a candidate in next year's presidential election and a key figure driving his country's fight against Al Qaeda-affiliated Shebab insurgents in neighbouring Somalia.
Late SaitotiSaitoti was killed along with Joshua Orwa Ojonde, the assistant minister for internal security, the two pilots -- including a woman -- and two bodyguards when the helicopter came down in the Ngong hills outside the capital.
President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga paid tribute to Saitoti, who played a prominent role in the campaign against Somali insurgents, blamed for a series of terror attacks and kidnappings on Kenyan soil.
"The government will ensure a thorough probe" into the cause of the crash, Odinga told journalists at the crash site.
Saitoti was on his way to attend a religious ceremony in western Kenya when the Eurocopter came down in the Kibuku forest around 8:30 am (0530 GMT) shortly after taking off from Nairobi's Wilson airport.
An AFP journalist on the scene saw six bodies charred beyond recognition being removed from the wreckage. The helicopter was entirely destroyed.
A witness at the scene described the helicopter as having "hovered up there and looked like it was turning back" before coming down.
Another witness, farmer Ole Tolei, told AFP that he had seen the aircraft "flying very low. It came down suddenly and we heard a loud explosion, and then it burst into flames."
As internal security minister, Saitoti controlled the state's top investigative arms, the National Security Intelligence Service and the Criminal Investigations Department.
Kenya sent thousands of troops into southern Somalia in October last year to fight the Shebab and protect its border. It has since been joined by other regional powers in a bid to rout the Islamist group from their strongholds in the south and centre of the country.
It was Saitoti who made the first public announcement of the invasion, a full two days after Kenyan troops crossed the border.
Several people have been killed in a series of bomb attacks in border areas, and a bomb in a Nairobi shopping centre last month wounded 38 people. Saitoti declared recently that the government would not be cowed by "terrorists".
Kibaki said in a statement the deaths were "a devastating loss to our country."
"Minister Saitoti will forever be remembered as a hardworking and determined public servant who dedicated his time to the service of the Kenyan people," he said.
Saitoti had announced that he was standing as a candidate to succeed Kibaki in the 2013 presidential election.
A former finance minister, he was vice-president in the administration of Daniel Arap Moi from 1989-1997 and again from 1999-2002.