- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2007

BAGHDAD — A U.S. security company helicopter crashed yesterday as it flew over a dangerous Sunni neighborhood in central Baghdad, where insurgents and Iraqi security troops fought a prolonged battle. A U.S. official said five American civilians on board were killed.

A senior Iraqi military official said the aircraft was shot down, but this was disputed by a U.S. military official in Washington. The Iraqi said the helicopter was hit by a machine gunner over the Fadhil neighborhood on the east side of the Tigris River, while the American official said there was no indication in initial reports that the aircraft, owned by Blackwater USA, had been shot down.

A second U.S. official, in Baghdad, said the five killed were Americans. All the officials demanded anonymity because the details had not been made public. The Americans said they did not know what caused the aircraft to crash.

The U.S. official in Baghdad had said there was no information to substantiate reports that the bodies had been shot.

The New York Times reported the helicopter went down as it came under attack and plummeted to the pavement through a tangle of electrical wires, but it was unclear if the crash resulted from gunfire, the wires or an effort to land.

Quoting unnamed American officials, the newspaper said the helicopter’s four-man crew was killed along with a gunner on a second Blackwater helicopter. It said one military official said that at least four of the victims had suffered gunshot wounds to the head, raising the prospect that some of them had been shot on the ground.

Witnesses in the Fadhil neighborhood said that they saw the helicopter go down after gunmen on the ground opened fire, possibly striking the pilot or co-pilot or both. Accounts varied, but all were consistent that at least one person operating the aircraft had been shot and badly hurt before the crash.

The helicopter was believed to have been flying escort above a VIP convoy on the ground as it headed away from the heavily fortified Green Zone to an undisclosed destination.

A spokeswoman for Blackwater USA, which is based in far northeastern North Carolina, declined comment yesterday. “We really don’t have any information for you yet,” said spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell. The company provides security for State Department officials in Iraq, trains military units from around the world, and works for corporate clients.

Katy Helvenston, mother of Scott Helvenston, a Blackwater employee who died in March 2004, said yesterday’s crash “just breaks my heart.”

“I’m so sick of these kids dying,” she said.

Mr. Helvenston was killed, along with Jerko “Jerry” Zovko, Wesley J.K. Batalona, and Michael R. Teague when a frenzied mob of insurgents ambushed a supply convoy they were escorting through Fallujah. The insurgents burned and mutilated the guards and strung two of the bodies from a bridge.

Before yesterday’s crash, at least 22 employees of Blackwater Security Consulting or Blackwater USA had died in Iraq as a result of war-related violence, according to the Web site iCasualties.org, which tracks foreign troop fatalities in Iraq. Of those, 20 were Americans, and two were Polish.

The crash of the small surveillance helicopter was the second associated with the U.S. war effort in Iraq in four days.

A U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter went down Saturday northeast of Baghdad, killing all 12 service members on board. The American military in Baghdad has refused to confirm a report by a Pentagon official that debris at the crash site indicated the helicopter was shot out of the air by a surface-to-air missile.

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