Army copter crashes at sea

10 troops on flight off Philippine coast

February 22, 2002|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A U.S. Army special operations helicopter carrying 10 Americans on a routine supply operation crashed into the waters off the Philippines yesterday, officials said.

U.S. and Philippine military forces found no survivors in the early hours after the crash. But early this morning, radio and television stations in the Philippines said that fishermen had rescued three crew members. The U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii could not confirm that.

U.S. military officials are bracing for what could be one of the single largest U.S. death tolls since the war on terrorism began with a bombardment in Afghanistan on Oct. 7.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the cause of the crash was not known but that there was no sign that the helicopter had drawn hostile fire. Davis said the search for the MH-47 Chinook helicopter, which was supporting an anti-terrorist training mission for Philippine forces, would continue.

It was not clear how many of those aboard were crew members and how many were passengers.

Nor was it known whether all were Army soldiers or special operations forces.

The helicopter was on a resupply mission from the island of Basilan in the southern Philippines to the small island of Mactan near the city of Cebu. It crashed in a gulf north of Basilan early this morning in the Philippines.

On Jan. 9, a U.S. military refueling plane crashed into a mountainside in Pakistan, killing seven Marines, in what had been the largest loss of American military personnel in a single incident.

In that incident, Pentagon officials said there was no indication that the four-engine KC-130 Hercules had been fired upon as it approached a base near Shamsi, a town in southwest Pakistan near the Afghan border.

The Philippine air base at Mactan is a logistics base for the anti-terrorist training operation being conducted by U.S. forces on Basilan.

About 600 U.S. troops, including Special Forces soldiers, have been sent to the Philippines in recent weeks to train and advise the Philippine armed forces in their fight against Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim terrorist group. Abu Sayyaf, which has had ties to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, often conducts kidnappings for ransom.

The group, thought to be based on Basilan, is holding two American missionaries - Martin and Gracia Burnham of Wichita, Kan. - and a Philippine nurse, Deborah Yap, on that tiny island.

At the time the helicopter crashed, Davis said, another Chinook was flying alongside it. That helicopter joined the search for survivors, as did other U.S. aircraft - including a U.S. Navy P-3 and a U.S. Air Force C-130 airplane.

About 3 1/2 hours before the crash, two Chinook helicopters had delivered the last of 160 U.S. Special Forces troops to Basilan, said Col. Alexander Aleo, commander of the Philippine military's 103rd brigade headquarters on Basilan.

Davis said he did not know whether the helicopter that crashed was part of that mission.

Aleo said the flight had been uneventful before the crash.

"There was no mechanical trouble reported or any rebel activity that might have affected their flight," Aleo said. "Everything looked normal."

Davis described the crash site as waters about 120 miles north-northeast of the city of Zamboanga, off the coast of the southern island of Mindanao.

The Chinook has been a military workhorse in recent months, carrying U.S. special operations soldiers to a raid inside southern Afghanistan in October. Another version of the helicopter, a CH-47, made a hard landing last month in Afghanistan, injuring 14 of the 24 U.S. soldiers aboard.

Wire reports contributed to this article.

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