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Black Hawk, Hornet shot down

An American tank crew stands ready in the Iraqi desert Wednesday.
An American tank crew stands ready in the Iraqi desert Wednesday.

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SOUTH-CENTRAL IRAQ (CNN) -- A U.S. Black Hawk helicopter and an F/A-18C Hornet fighter bomber have been shot down as coalition forces continue to push closer to Baghdad, military officials say.

The Army helicopter came down near the city of Karbala in south-central Iraq, about 80 km (50 miles) from Baghdad Wednesday evening, but there have been conflicting reports of casualties.

A U.S. Navy F/A-18C Hornet went down over Iraq and a search-and-rescue operation has been launched, U.S. officials said.

The single-seat fighter jet from the USS Kitty Hawk went down around 12:45 a.m. Thursday (3:45 p.m. ET Wednesday). The name of the pilot was being withheld pending notification of next of kin, U.S. Central Command said.

The Pentagon said seven soldiers were killed and four others wounded and rescued in the helicopter crash. However a statement from U.S. Central Command headquarters in Qatar said only six people were on the Black Hawk and casualties could not be confirmed.

Officials said there was small arms fire in the area when the helicopter went down but did not say what caused the helicopter to go down.

Military planners say U.S. troops are now within 25 kilometers of Baghdad after a twin-pronged advance beat back Iraqi Republican Guard units near Karbala, the scene of several days of heavy fighting.

Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said the "quick-moving" battle has reduced the Medina and Baghdad divisions of Iraq's Republican Guard to the point where they were no longer "credible forces."

The troops could be on Baghdad's southern outskirts by early Thursday, commanders told CNN's Karl Penhaul, embedded with the U.S. Army's V Corps, 11th Attack Helicopter Regiment.

But Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke warned Wednesday that "some of the toughest fighting could lie ahead."

The drive towards Baghdad was made by the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division, Army officers told CNN's Walt Rodgers. His report was cleared by 7th Cavalry officials.

Rodgers, embedded with 3-7th Cavalry, quoted Army sources telling him that the 1st and 3rd Brigades of the division took Karbala with "very little effort."

The 1st Brigade "punched through" Karbala, expecting a tough resistance but faced only a few tanks and some mortars, Rodgers added. Coming in behind the 1st, the 3rd Brigade secured the city.

The division, he said, has been "rolling in the direction of Baghdad" all day, the line stretching 16 kilometers in either direction.

"It's a very quick-moving, very fluid battle. The armor and mechanized infantry and artillery pieces on the ground are moving at rapid speeds," said Capt. Brian McCort, the pilot of an Apache helicopter gunship.

Rodgers said the road toward Baghdad was littered with dead Iraqis by the road and Iraqi POWs waiting to be transported to camps in the south. (More eyewitness)

However, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf denied reports that coalition forces had crossed the Tigris River and were approaching Baghdad, saying the U.S. had lost significant numbers of troops and equipment. (Full Story)

Official Iraqi death toll figures are not available but state-run Iraqi television said Monday that 420 civilians had been killed and 4,000 injured.

The British Ministry of Defense said Wednesday 27 of its soldiers had died so far, six in battle and 19 from so-called friendly-fire. The cause of death for a further two are not known.

The Pentagon said 48 U.S. troops have died so far, 39 in hostilities and nine in non-hostilities.

On the northern front, the U.S. says it has secured key agreements from Turkey over access to northern Iraq, following meetings between U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and his Turkish counterparts.

This includes agreements allowing overflights for U.S. heavy military equipment into northern Iraq and allowing passage for humanitarian and reconstruction assistance. (Full story)

Meanwhile, the United Nations warned the war could create a humanitarian crisis as homes run out of food.

One of the worst affected areas is Basra in the south of the country which is suffering from food and water shortages. Coalition soldiers hope to get food to them after they found a hoard of food supplies when they took a warehouse on the outskirts of the city previously under the control of Iraq's Fedayeen Saddam paramilitary force. (Full Story)

Meanwhile, U.S. Special Forces rescued an American prisoner of war, soldier Jessica Lynch, 19, who had been missing for more than a week. (POW rescue)

Other developments:

• The Iraqi regime and the U.S.-led coalition are accusing each other of targeting Shiite holy sites in the battlefield. (Full story)

• The U.S. Central Command Wednesday said it is looking into an allegations that a maternity hospital was bombed by coalition aircraft. (Full Story)

• U.S. forces defeated the Republican Guard Baghdad Division in the town of Kut, about 160 kilometers southeast of the Iraqi capital, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks told a briefing at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Doha.

• "We currently hold over 4,500 enemy prisoners of war," U.S. Central Command spokesman Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said Wednesday.

• The chairman of Bosnia's three-member presidency resigned Wednesday after being implicated in a local company's violation of the U.N. arms embargo against Iraq, the speaker of the Bosnian Serb parliament said. (Full story)

• The highest-ranking diplomat at Iraq's embassy in Manama, Bahrain, was expelled Wednesday, Bahraini government officials say. Nazem Jawad Ali, the First Secretary to the Iraqi embassy in Bahrain, was masterminding a series of terrorist attacks in Kuwait and other parts of the region, according to Kuwaiti government sources. (Full story)

• On Tuesday night an Iraqi official read a statement on Iraqi television that he said was from Saddam, prompting Washington to press for proof that the Iraqi president was still alive. (Saddam no-show)

EDITOR'S NOTE: CNN's policy is to not report information that puts operational security at risk.

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