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Nov. 15, 2003, 11:36PM

Midair helicopter crash kills 17 in Iraq

BlackHawkscollide indeadliest incident

Associated Press

MOSUL, Iraq -- Two Black Hawk helicopters collided and crashed Saturday night, killing 17 American soldiers in the U.S. military's worst single loss of life since the Iraq war began.

Five soldiers were injured and one was missing, the military said. One helicopter smashed into the roof of a house, witnesses said, and there were reports one of the aircraft was shot down.

As the U.S. death toll in Iraq passed the 400 mark, the Iraqi Governing Council endorsed a U.S. plan Saturday that would create a provisional government by June. The transfer of power would provide Washington an "exit strategy" in the face of escalating guerrilla warfare.

The two Black Hawks, which belonged to the 101st Airborne Division, went down in the Borsa residential neighborhood of Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city.

A statement by the U.S. command said one helicopter was carrying a quick reaction force and the other ferried soldiers on a transport mission in northern Iraq.

The statement did not give the cause of the crash, although some soldiers at the scene said at least one of the Black Hawks may have been hit by ground fire.

"The cause of the incidents are under investigation," the statement said. "We will not speculate on the cause of these crashes."

In other developments Saturday:

·The number of Italian military personnel killed in Wednesday's suicide attack in the southern city of Nasiriyah reached 19 Saturday when a severely wounded soldier was pronounced dead in Kuwait.

·Gunmen killed a translator working for Mosul's municipal administration, together with his son.

·A Portuguese journalist abducted by gunmen in southern Iraq was set free Saturday at a roadside about 36 hours after being abducted near Basra.

Before Saturday's crash, the U.S. military's deadliest incident was the downing of a Chinook transport helicopter on Nov. 2 that killed 16 soldiers. A Black Hawk was also shot down Nov. 7, killing all six soldiers on board.

There were days early in the war on which more soldiers died, but they were spread over several attacks or accidents.

Earlier in the day, a 1st Armored Division soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad. The crash put the number of American casualties since the March invasion at 417.

The crash occurred about 6:30 p.m. after sundown, but both pilots were qualified for limited-visibility flying, the military said.

The statement said the site was secured by U.S. troops, Iraqi police and firefighters. The aircraft came from the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Ky.

One soldier at the scene told The Associated Press he heard that one of the helicopters was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade before it crashed. A U.S. military spokesman said such reports were "at best speculative."

One witness, Nafe Younis, said he was sitting on the roof of his house when he saw the rotor blades of the two helicopters hit each other.

One of the helicopters then "hit into the house and a few minutes later it went ablaze," said Younis, who lives across the street from where one of the helicopters crashed.

The helicopter crashes in Mosul lengthened the already grim roster of recent U.S. deaths. The crashes Saturday pushed the number of Americans killed in combat this month to more than 60.

The attacks on U.S. helicopters have been particularly damaging. After the recent downings, military officials said U.S. helicopter pilots had been instructed to take additional measures to protect themselves from hostile fire.

It is not clear whether the Black Hawk that apparently came under fire Saturday night was engaging in one of those maneuvers when it crashed into the second helicopter.

In the skies over Baghdad, the Black Hawks and Chinooks that used to lumber overhead and approach their landing sites at an easy pace now appear to move around at much higher speeds. They do not hover in one spot for very long. Both of the helicopters that went down Saturday belonged to an elite unit that specializes in assaulting enemy positions by ferrying in large numbers of troops through the air. U.S. helicopters flying over Iraq typically fly in pairs, in part to protect one another.

Until recently, the area around Mosul, with its large ethnic Kurdish population, had been mostly peaceful. But in the past two months, U.S. soldiers based in the city have been the targets of numerous attacks, resulting in a number of deaths and injuries. Most of the attacks have been against targets based on the ground.

There have been widespread suspicions that the recent attacks in Mosul have been the work of foreign fighters, although no firm conclusions have been reached.

The New York Times contributed to this story.


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