Helicopter crash kills 17 Spanish troops in Afghanistan
A HELICOPTER belonging to a NATO-led international security force crashed in Afghanistan yesterday, killing 17 Spanish troops, while another made an emergency landing, injuring five more, according to officials.
The cause of the crash in the desert near the western city of Herat was not immediately known, but Spain's defence minister said he did not rule out hostile fire. There were also a suggestion that the two helicopters had collided mid-air, had engine problems or had come down in a sandstorm.
The victims of the crash were the first Spanish troops to be killed inside Afghanistan, according to the country's defence ministry.
Jose Bono, the Spanish defence minister said 12 soldiers and five crew died in the accident. He said five soldiers were slightly injured on the helicopter that made the emergency landing.
Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the Spanish prime minister broke off his holiday in the Canary Islands to return to Madrid and meet with defence ministry officials.
A spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, Major Andrew Elmes, said it was too early to know the cause, but it was believed to have been an accident and not due to rebel activity. He said earlier that mechanical failure may have been to blame.
Major Elmes said rescuers were on the site, recovering the dead and injured.
Both aircraft were on a training mission to support legislative elections next month. Taleban-led rebels have vowed to sabotage the election and have stepped up attacks, mostly in the east and south, but rarely around Herat.
Mr Bono said the two Spanish helicopters had been flying together before the accident. One of the pilots reported seeing a column of black smoke in a nearby valley, flew closer to the spot, concluded it might signal an attack from the ground and decided to make an emergency landing. The other helicopter crashed, he said.
He said Spanish officials initially thought the crash was an accident, but changed their minds after seeing photographs of the area - a level plain - which would have been an easy place to make an emergency landing.
This circumstance, he said, "leads the military high command not to rule out the hypothesis that it could be an attack rather than an accident."
He said he would travel to Afghanistan to help oversee the investigation and repatriation of the bodies.
In Washington, Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said preliminary information showed no indication that the aircraft was brought down by hostile fire or of a mid-air collision with another aircraft. He emphasised that the investigation is still under way.
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