Blackhawk Crash in Iraq Kills All 12 Aboard

By RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr.
Published: January 8, 2006

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Jan. 8 - Twelve Americans were believed to have died late Saturday when an Army UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter went down in northern Iraq between the restive cities of Tal Afar and Mosul. Bad weather was thought to have played at least some role, but the military would not rule out any possible cause, including hostile fire.

The crash came as the military reported that five marines were killed in fighting with insurgents west of Baghdad over the weekend, making it - with the loss of the 12 aboard the Blackhawk - one of the deadliest two-day stretches for the American military in some time.

The Blackhawk is the workhorse utility helicopter of the Army and it typically transports soldiers. But in Iraq, Blackhawks also routinely carry other government employees, private contractors and journalists accompanying military units.

The military would not say whether any of the people on board the downed helicopter were civilians. "All I can say at this time is that they are all believed to be U.S. citizens," said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a military spokesman in Baghdad. According to the manifest for the flight, there were eight passengers and four crew members aboard.

The helicopter crashed in a sparsely populated region about seven miles east of Tal Afar just before midnight. It had been flying between military bases in northern Iraq in support of troops from Task Force Band of Brothers, an American unit that patrols north-central Iraq. A search-and-rescue operation was launched as soon as communications were lost, and the helicopter was found about noon today, the military said.

"There was severe weather in the area, and that appears to have been a contributing factor," Colonel Johnson said. "But we don't know the precise cause yet."

The task force, which took command of north-central Iraq on Nov. 1, is composed of a combat aviation brigade and two brigade combat teams from the 101st Airborne Division in Ft. Campbell, Ky., and two brigade combat teams from the Third Infantry Division in Ft. Stewart, Ga.

Its public affairs officer, Lt. Col. Ed Loomis, said in an e-mail message tonight that "the investigation of the causes for the incident has just begun and nothing has been ruled out at this very early stage."

Though only 30 miles west of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, Tal Afar is a dusty, isolated city of a quarter-million people surrounded by desert and barren hills. Nine months ago, the Army's Third Armored Cavalry Division was assigned to retake the region after it had been overrun with insurgents who used it as a base to import foreign fighters and money from Syria.

Marines patrolling the volatile province of Anbar in western Iraq suffered five fatalities over the weekend, including three killed today in separate insurgent attacks in Falluja. All were assigned to Regimental Combat Team 8 of the Second Marine Division, the Marines said, as was a fourth marine killed on Saturday by a roadside bomb near Ferris.

A fifth marine, from the Second Marine Logistics Group, died on Saturday after his vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb near Al Karmah, the military said.

In Baghdad, the Iraqi and French authorities reported that Bernard Planche, a 52-year-old French engineer kidnapped in Baghdad last month, was set free on Saturday near a checkpoint set up west of the capital by Iraqi and American soldiers, according to Agence France-Presse.

An Iraqi security official, describing the release of Mr. Planche, told the French news agency, "The kidnappers were in a car with the hostage, they fled when they saw the soldiers."

The Reuters news agency quoted the French foreign minister Philippe Douste-Blazy as saying that Mr. Planche "has just been picked up this afternoon in Baghdad by officials from the French Embassy."

"He should return to France soon by means which will be advised as soon as possible," he said.

The New York Times