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Spain: 'Copter possibly shot down

By CNN Madrid Bureau Chief Al Goodman

A Spanish helicopter crashed Tuesday near Herat, Afganistan.



MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- Spain's defense minister says he has not ruled out hostile fire as the cause of a helicopter crash in Afghanistan that killed 17 Spanish soldiers.

"It could have been an accident or an attack," Jose Bono said, speaking to reporters at the Defense Ministry in Madrid. "The causes have not been fully clarified."

The troops -- among the forces providing security support for next month's elections in Afghanistan -- were serving under NATO command as part of a Spanish contingent of about 800 peacekeeping troops there. Most Spanish troops are based in Herat, in western Afghanistan.

The helicopter was one of two Spanish helicopters flying near Herat.

The second helicopter, flying near the one that crashed, made an emergency landing after spotting a column of black smoke in the distance. The pilot of the second aircraft thought an attack might have been under way and made a hard landing in a nearby valley, slightly injuring five people on board, Bono said.

That black smoke turned out to be the result of the crash.

Initially, Spanish officials thought the crash might have been an accident, believing that it could have occurred in a mountainous area. But later, photos showed that the crash was on flat, prairie-like terrain.

Maj. Andy Elmes -- an International Security Assistance Force spokesman who confirmed that the troops were involved in election security support -- said a rescue operation is "ongoing, moving wounded to the ISAF military hospital in Herat, securing the site and allowing us to begin investigation into the cause."

"ISAF believes that this is the result of an accident, but it will not prejudge the results of the investigation," Elmes said.

Bono ruled out the possibility that the two aircraft made contact in mid-air.

The 17 were from bases in northwest Spain's Galicia region and Seville, and the highest ranking officer on the helicopter was a captain. Bono read their names aloud at the news conference.

The deaths were the country's first troop fatalities in Afghanistan.

"Today is a day of pain and mourning and solidarity with the families who lost loved ones," Bono said.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has cut short his vacation to return to Madrid to meet with Bono and deal with the issue.

Bono, who was in Afghanistan just two weeks ago to review the troops, plans to fly to Afghanistan later Tuesday to supervise the investigation and repatriation of the bodies after he meets with Zapatero.

Fighting pitting U.S. and Afghan forces against Taliban militants has been raging during the runup to September 18 Afghan parliamentary and local elections.

The latest U.S. military news statement Tuesday said Afghan and U.S. forces killed six insurgents near the city of Deh Rahwod, in southern Afghanistan, on Sunday.

Herat, however, is part of a region closer to Iran, an area that has not been plagued by the kind of fighting that has been raging along Afghanistan's eastern border.

In May 2003, 62 Spanish troops returning from peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan died when their plane crashed in Turkey.

There have been recent U.S. helicopter crashes in Afghanistan.

In June, 16 service members aboard a MH-47 helicopter died when the craft crashed near the Afghan-Pakistan border.

The U.S. military suspects the helicopter was downed by a rocket-propelled grenade in that area, where there has been fighting between between coalition forces and militants.

In April, 15 soldiers and three civilian contractors were killed when a coalition helicopter -- a CH-47 Chinook -- traveling in bad weather crashed near Ghazni, roughly 100 miles southwest of Kabul.

Operation Enduring Freedom, which ousted the Taliban government that harbored the al Qaeda terror network that attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, started a month after the strikes that hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Fighting has persisted over the years, claiming the lives of 224 American troops.

Sixteen Germans, seven Canadians, four Britons, three Danes, three Romanians, two French, two Italians, one Norwegian, and one Australian also have died in Operation Enduring Freedom.

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