Soldiers die in copter crash in Iraq

9 U.S.

Rocket reportedly hits Army Black Hawk on medical flight, killing all

`This will intimidate Americans'

In Fallujah, rocket attack on hospital, street battle

January 09, 2004|By Jeffrey Fleishman and Nicholas Riccardi | Jeffrey Fleishman and Nicholas Riccardi,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NAAIMIYA, Iraq - An American Black Hawk helicopter crashed yesterday in this stronghold of Iraqi insurgents west of Fallujah, killing all nine soldiers on board, the latest in a string of deadly helicopter incidents, U.S. officials said.

The crash - the worst since the collision of two military helicopters Nov. 15 that killed 17 soldiers - occurred about 2:20 p.m. in an area of potato farms and date palms.

Witnesses said two U.S. helicopters were flying in formation when the rear one was struck by a rocket, plunged to the ground and shattered into pieces.

A military spokesman said the helicopter was on a medical evacuation flight. Several witnesses said the downed Black Hawk bore medical insignia.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said the helicopter was on a "routine mission" and the cause of the crash is under investigation. He did not release the names of those killed but said all were believed to be American troops.

The crash followed another night of violence in Fallujah, with rocket attacks on a hospital and a firefight between U.S. troops and unidentified men.

The region, known as the Sunni Triangle, is the heart of resistance for Saddam Hussein loyalists and deadly terrain for U.S. soldiers.

Attacks against American forces in the area have been fewer in recent weeks, but U.S. military officials say the insurgents have refined their tactics to become more lethal.

Another sign of that came Wednesday night when an Air Force cargo plane taking off from Baghdad was reportedly hit by a surface-to-air missile on one of its engines.

The plane - carrying 60 passengers and crew - was forced to return to the airport after what one official described as an "in-flight emergency." Kimmitt said no soldiers were injured and the incident was under investigation.

Another cargo plane was hit by a rocket in November and forced to make an emergency landing. The crew was unhurt.

The downing of the Black Hawk yesterday brought glee to many in Naaimiya, a hamlet of farmhouses along a twisting road where men carry assault weapons at their sides.

The helicopter "flipped three times and metal pieces scattered when it hit the ground," said Samir Mohammed, standing beyond the crash site, which U.S. soldiers had secured by nightfall. "Our traditions and our beliefs tell us not to accept occupiers here."

Sabbah Chanon, a farmer, said: "The majority of people will be happy. This will intimidate the Americans."

He added that immediately after the crash, several locals converged on the site and carried away a pistol and the photograph of a young girl.

"We're proud," said another witness, Jassim Hamid.

Since November nearly 50 U.S. soldiers have died in attacks on seven helicopters north and west of Baghdad. The heaviest casualties occurred Nov. 1, when insurgents shot down a Chinook, killing 16 soldiers, and Nov. 15 in Mosul when two Black Hawks under enemy fire collided and 17 U.S. troops died.

Kimmitt said that after each attack, the U.S. military has adjusted its plans and strategies in attempts to outmaneuver an enemy that has itself been adapting as the months go by.

The pilots, said Kimmitt, "make conscious decisions of risks they're taking and get back into the air."

U.S. forces also reported that a soldier died of injuries after a Wednesday night mortar attack on the 3rd Corps Support Command's logistical base in Balad.

Thirty-three others were wounded when at least six mortars struck the compound about 50 miles northwest of Baghdad. Ten were still being treated; 20 have returned to their units.

At the Abu Ghraib prison on the desolate outskirts of Baghdad, there was confusion and frustration yesterday over a U.S. plan to release to more than 500 detainees, including 28 juveniles.

L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, said a day earlier that prisoners considered low security threats would be released in a goodwill effort.

Hundreds of family members arrived at the prison, awaiting relatives some have not seen for six months. But no prisoners were immediately forthcoming.

Hours later, about 80 men emerged from the prison, but U.S. officials would not say whether they were part of the amnesty program or a routine release of detainees arrested days earlier by coalition forces.

When asked to clarify the situation, coalition spokesman Dan Senor said only that the United States was "ready" to release 100 detainees under the amnesty program. He indicated that U.S. authorities were awaiting word from tribal leaders to accept and take responsibility for the prisoners. The amnesty agreement calls for community leaders to monitor a detainee's activity. The coalition is holding 9,370 detainees and criminals.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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