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Downed Russian helicopter kills 18

Story Highlights

• Mi-8 transport helicopter "shot down" by Chechen rebels near Shatoi
• 18 Russian soldiers killed, three crew members and 15 servicemen
• Gunfight was raging at the scene of the crash, Russian news agencies said
• Seven pro-Moscow troops were killed near Shatoi last year
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MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- Eighteen people are dead after a Russian-made Mi-8 military transport helicopter crashed in the volatile province of Chechnya.

Earlier, the Russian military prosecutor's office told CNN that 14 paratroopers and three crew members were killed when the helicopter went down.

The craft, a Russian-made Mi-8, was part of a three-helicopter team providing reinforcements to help commandos conducting a special operation in the restive region of Chechnya, near the town of Shatoi.

A spokesman for the military prosecutor's office told Reuters, "At the present time the death toll is 18 people -- the crew and troops."

Authorities are investigating whether the craft was shot down or whether there had been a technical malfunction that caused a crash.

The air force, in a statement, confirmed the aircraft had come down but said nothing about the cause .

"At 11:34 (0734 GMT) while carrying out a mission to transport troops to the south of Shatoi there was an emergency situation which involved a Mi-8 helicopter coming down," the statement said.

The RIA news agency said the helicopter was shot down by Chechen rebels during a Russian operation, according to a Reuters report.

The agency also said a gunfight was raging at the scene of the crash between insurgents and Russian forces.

Chechnya is an autonomous republic in southwestern Russia, in the Caucasus Mountains region and has long fought for its independence. Years of conflict have taken a heavy toll on Chechnya's infrastructure and people. Fighting has damaged buildings, killed thousands and displaced half a million Chechen people.

Most Chechen leaders have been killed in the past few years, curtailing attacks but this incident appeared to be the deadliest single attack for over a year by Chechnya's insurgents who have fought a 12-year war against Moscow's rule.

Russia has been fighting in Chechnya since 1994, when then President Boris Yeltsin, who died this week, sent in troops to put down a separatist rebellion.

President Vladimir Putin vowed to squash the rebels when he took office seven years ago. Moscow's forces, working with local allies, have killed the main separatist leaders and driven the rebels into mountain hideouts.

The biggest loss of life sustained by Russian and pro-Moscow forces last year was when seven troops were killed during an operation also near Shatoi.

Chechnya's pro-Moscow authorities said dozens of rebel fighters gave themselves up under an amnesty late last year. But the separatists insisted they had not been finished off and pledged to keep attacking Russian forces.


A military helicopter crash has killed at least 17 Russian soldiers in the town of Shatoi in Chechnya.



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