BAGHDAD, Iraq – Insurgents firing missiles brought down a Russian-made helicopter north of the capital Thursday, killing 11 civilians including six American bodyguards for U.S. diplomats, officials said. The chartered flight was believed to be the first civilian aircraft shot down in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion two years ago.
The Mi-8 helicopter was shot out of the air as growing numbers of contractors, diplomats and other civilian officials are turning to aircraft to avoid insurgent attacks on Iraq's roads. The Islamic Army in Iraq, one of numerous insurgent groups, claimed responsibility for Thursday's strike in a statement posted on a militant Web site; the claim could not be verified.
The six Americans were employed by Blackwater Security Consulting – a subsidiary of North Carolina-based security contractor Blackwater USA, which had four employees slain and mutilated by insurgents in Fallujah a year ago.
Elsewhere in Iraq, two U.S. Marines were killed Wednesday by a roadside bomb in Ramadi, west of the capital, the military said. The attack was followed by more explosions and gunfire Thursday in Ramadi and Baghdad that killed at least five people, including two foreign civilians.
The Americans killed in Thursday's crash were assisting the Bureau of Diplomatic Security in protecting U.S. diplomats in Iraq.
"They played a critical role in our effort to bring a better way of life to the people of a country who have not experienced freedom and opportunity for many years," State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said.
The helicopter went down about 12 miles north of Baghdad. Associated Press Television News footage showed burning wreckage from the craft and personal belongings scattered across a wide area.
Ereli said he could not confirm the cause of the crash.
However, the Bulgarian Defense Ministry said the helicopter was struck by missile fire, and that the three crew members were Bulgarian. A Canada-based charter company said the two additional passengers were Fijian helicopter security guards.
The aircraft was owned by Heli Air of Bulgaria and chartered by Toronto-based SkyLink Aviation Inc., according to SkyLink air operations manager Paul Greenaway. It was flying to Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit from Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone, home to Iraq's parliament and many diplomats.
Ereli said the U.S. government routinely hires contractors to provide security for diplomats, facilities or the activities of people connected with the government.
"There is a need for security that goes beyond what employees of the U.S. government can provide and we go to private companies to offer that," Ereli said. "That's a common practice. It's not unique to Iraq. We do it around the world."
Thursday's helicopter crash was thought to be the first shootdown of a civilian aircraft in Iraq since the invasion in March 2003.
On Nov. 22, 2003, a plane operated by the global package delivery service DHL was struck by a shoulder-fired missile near Baghdad and forced to make an emergency landing with its wing aflame. The three crew members were unhurt.
It was not the first time Blackwater workers have died in Iraq.
On March 13, two American security contractors working for Blackwater Security – a subsidiary of Blackwater USA – were killed and a third was wounded in a roadside bombing south of Baghdad on the main road to Hillah.
Last year, four Blackwater employees were killed in Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, and their bodies were burned and mutilated. Two of the corpses were strung up on a bridge over the Euphrates River. The deaths touched off a U.S. Marine assault on insurgents in the city.
This week has seen an increase in insurgent attacks, especially in the capital.
On Thursday, a roadside bomb exploded on the highway leading to Baghdad's airport, severely damaging three SUVs carrying civilians. Police Capt. Hamid Ali said two foreigners were killed and three were wounded. U.S. Embassy and military officials could not confirm the casualties.
In Ramadi, a roadside bomb wounded one soldier in a U.S. convoy. Another American soldier fired his machine gun at a suspected Iraqi ambush site, killing a female Iraqi civilian, U.S. officials said in a statement. Soldiers found an electronic device near the woman that may have been used to trigger the explosion, the statement said.
Hours later, gunfire erupted downtown, and an Associated Press photographer saw the body of a young boy in a street near three smoldering cars.
Sporadic gunfire continued for about two hours, said the photographer, Bilal Hussein. When it subsided, Iraqis pulled the charred body of an adult from one of the burned cars, Hussein said. It was not clear how the two were killed.
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