12 dead in helicopter crash

A Black Hawk helicopter believed to be carrying 12 people crashed in northern Iraq and killed everyone aboard, while five US Marines were slain in separate weekend attacks, the military said today.

A Black Hawk helicopter believed to be carrying 12 people crashed in northern Iraq and killed everyone aboard, while five US Marines were slain in separate weekend attacks, the military said today.

The deaths came as Iraqi police said a kidnapped French engineer was released by his captors.

The UH-60 Black Hawk crashed just before midnight on Saturday about seven miles east of the insurgent stronghold of Tal Afar, a northern city near the Syrian border, the officials said. The military said that all aboard were believed to be US citizens.

It was the worst helicopter crash in Iraq since a CH-53 Sea Stallion ditched in bad weather in western Iraq on January 26, 2005, killing 31 US service members.

In Saturday’s crash, records indicated that eight passengers and four crew members were aboard, the officials said, but they did not say how many were members of the US military or if all were Americans. The military also did not say what caused the crash.

The Black Hawk was part of a two-helicopter team moving between bases when communications were lost, the military said. A search and rescue operation was launched and the helicopter was found about noon today, the military said.

Three Marines were also killed today by small arms attacks in Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, the military said.

On Saturday, two Marines were killed by roadside bombs in separate incidents, the military said. One blast occurred about 50 miles west of Baghdad, while the other happened about 35 miles north of the capital.

In other violence today, five people were killed in separate attacks in Baghdad, including a policeman killed by a suicide car bomber that targeted an Interior Ministry patrol. Seven others were wounded.

The Association of Muslim Scholars, a major Sunni clerical group, said US troops raided their headquarters at Baghdad’s Umm al-Qura mosque before dawn. The association is thought by some to be close to some insurgent groups.

“The Americans bear the responsibility for this assault,” said Sheik Younis al-Ekaidi. “This crime came as punishment for the association’s position on the occupation and its position on the latest elections.”

A US military official said the raid was conducted because of a tip from an Iraqi citizen that there was ”significant terrorist related activity in the building” and six people were detained.

“The time of day was chosen to minimise impact on the mosque, a time when there wouldn’t be worshippers, and a minimum number of people in the surrounding area,” said Lt Col Barry Johnson.

Meanwhile French hostage, engineer Bernard Planche, was freed after being pushed out of a car near a checkpoint in a Baghdad suburb by nervous captors who then fled, Iraqi police said.

Planche, 52, was kidnapped on December 5 on his way to work at a water plant. He was found Saturday night near the checkpoint in the Abu Ghraib neighbourhood, said Maj. Falah al-Mohammadawi.

President Jacques Chirac “is delighted by the happy outcome,” France’s presidential Elysee Palace said. He personally gave the news to Planche’s daughter, Isabelle, and his brother, Gilles.

Planche worked for a non-governmental organisation called AACCESS. His captors had released a video of him sitting between two armed men. Arab news channel Al-Arabiya, which broadcast an excerpt of the video, said the militants denounced the “illegal French presence” in Iraq and demanded the withdrawal of French troops from the country. France has not sent forces to Iraq.

The name of a previously unknown militant group, called ”Monitoring For Iraq,” was shown in the corner of the video.

Insurgents have kidnapped more than 250 foreigners in the past two years, aiming to force US-led troops to leave Iraq or prevent Arab nations from strengthening their ties with the Baghdad government.

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