Spain probes 'attack' on helicopter in Afghanistan
AFP | August 17, 2005
|Investigators on Wednesday searched the wreckage of a Spanish helicopter that crashed killing 17 peacekeepers in Afghanistan, as witnesses reportedly said it came under attack from the ground.
NATO and Afghan authorities have said they think the Cougar helicopter ploughed into the desert near the western city of Herat because of an accident, but Spanish officials have not ruled out hostile fire.
"We all felt a strong impact, like an explosion, and our helicopter began turning until it fell to the ground," said a soldier who was among five injured in a second Spanish helicopter nearby.
"The others, the ones in front, must have been hit full blast," the anonymous soldier, who was interviewed by telephone by Spain's La Voz de Galicia newspaper, was quoted as saying.
A parent of one of the dead soldiers was quoted in the same newspaper as saying that they had received a call from the pilot of the second craft, saying the first helicopter was "fired on from the ground" and shot down.
The 17 Spaniards were on a training exercise for upcoming parliamentary polls when they died.
Major Andy Elmes, spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), said Spanish forces were taking the lead on the investigation into the crash.
"We still believe it was an accident, we don't believe it was hostile fire," he added, saying that the exact cause of the crash had not yet been established.
However Spanish Defence Minister Jose Bono told reporters in Madrid Tuesday that the possibility of an attack could not be ruled out.
The impact happened on flat ground where an emergency landing should have been possible, said Bono, adding: "That explains why we have not ruled out the possibility of an attack."
Those aboard the second helicopter "saw a column of black smoke, and thinking there had been an attack from the ground, made an emergency landing," Bono said, ruling out suggestions that the two helicopters might have collided.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer offered his condolences after the crash while US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Washington was "deeply saddened".
In June 16 US servicemen were killed when suspected Taliban militants in eastern Afghanistan shot down an American Chinook helicopter, the deadliest single attack on US forces in the war-torn country.
However the Spanish crash happened in western Afghanistan, which is regarded as more peaceful than the Taliban heartland in the south and east.
The dead servicemen were part of an 850-member Spanish contingent attached to ISAF, which is patrolling northern and western Afghanistan before September's legislative polls.
This is the second major loss for Madrid's contingent in Afghanistan. In May 2003, 62 Spanish peacekeepers died when an obsolete Ukrainian plane bringing them home crashed in Turkey.
As well as hostile fire, air crews over Afghanistan have to contend with craggy, high-altitude terrain and a lack of air traffic control. There have been more than 10 helicopter crashes in Afghanistan since 2001,
Eighteen people including three civilians were killed when a US Chinook helicopter went down in a dust storm in the southeastern province of Ghazni in March.