Militants shoot down helicopter near Baghdad, killing 11 civilians

6 American security guards among victims of rebel attack

April 22, 2005|By Solomon Moore | Solomon Moore,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - A video released yesterday after the downing of a private helicopter carrying six American security guards and five others appeared to show insurgents shooting to death the lone crew member who survived the crash.

In an Internet statement, a group identifying itself as the Islamic Army in Iraq claimed responsibility for shooting down the helicopter. The statement was accompanied by a video showing the repeated shooting of a man in a blue flight suit who was found in tall grass and forced to stand up and walk. The video shows burning wreckage just before the shooting.

"Heroes of the Islamic Army downed a transport aircraft belonging to the army of the infidels and killed its crew and those on board in the regions of al-Taji north of Baghdad," the group said in a written statement posted on the Web with a video purporting to show the shooting of the survivor. "One of the crew members was captured and killed," the statement said.

The chartered flight was believed to be the first civilian aircraft shot down in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion two years ago. The helicopter was 12 miles north of Baghdad on its way to a U.S. military base in Tikrit when it was struck by ground fire.

In a separate attack near Ramadi, an American security guard was killed when a bomb exploded near his armored vehicle.

All seven of the dead Americans were employees of Blackwater USA, a North Carolina security firm. The company has now lost at least 16 employees in Iraq since the invasion, more than any other security contractor, according to U.S. Labor Department statistics.

"This is a very sad day for the Blackwater family," company President Gary Jackson said in a statement. "We lost seven of our friends to attacks by terrorists in Iraq, and our thoughts and prayers go out to their family members."

The five other men - three Bulgarians and two Fijians - who died in the helicopter incident worked for SkyLink Air and Logistic Support and its Bulgarian subcontractor in Iraq, Heli-Air Services. SkyLink has a contract with the Defense Department to ferry personnel around Iraq.

Militants frequently fire shoulder-launched missiles or rocket-propelled grenades at aircraft in and around Baghdad as well as in northern and western Iraq. A British C-130 military cargo plane went down north of Baghdad in January, killing 15 people, although the Royal Air Force has not determined the cause of the crash.

The past week has brought deadly reminders of the toll the insurgency has taken on private American contractors. At least four other Western civilians were killed in recent days, all along the road between Baghdad's secured Green Zone and the international airport.

On Tuesday, insurgent snipers ambushed a British security firm's convoy near the airport, killing three security guards, one of them an American.

And on Saturday, a car bomb hit another private convoy on the airport road, killing a Western security guard and Marla Ruzicka, an activist from northern California who was working to gain restitution for Iraqi war victims.

By last year, an estimated 50,000 private security personnel were working in Iraq for Western companies. Private security details have guarded major Iraqi government figures and U.S. officials, as well as corporate employees involved in reconstruction efforts here. Many of the security guards are former members of the U.S. armed forces and other national military organizations and can earn more than $100,000 a year with "danger pay" bonuses.

Contractors have become increasingly targeted by insurgents in an effort to halt the reconstruction effort. Since March 2003, at least 284 contractors have been killed in Iraq, according to statistics kept by the Labor Department. The figure includes Americans as well as contractors from other countries.

The six Blackwater employees killed in yesterday's attack on the helicopter represent the second-deadliest incident for U.S. contractors in Iraq since the war began. Last April, six truck drivers working for Halliburton were killed, and a seventh is missing and presumed dead.

Among the dozens of security firms in Iraq, Blackwater is considered one of the most elite, with many of its employees being former members of U.S. special forces. It has taken on some of the most dangerous missions.

Four employees were killed in Fallujah in March 2004, their bodies burned and two of them hung from a bridge. The families of those employees have sued the North Carolina company, charging that it was negligent in safeguarding the safety of the men.

Also yesterday, conflicting accounts emerged regarding the execution this week of 19 men in a soccer stadium in the western town of Haditha. Witnesses initially said the men were all off-duty Iraqi soldiers.

But Lt. Col. Frederick P. Wellman, a spokesman for the U.S.-led multinational force in Iraq, said the slain were local fishermen.

No other details were available regarding the deaths.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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