5 die in private U.S. helicopter crash in Iraq

A small helicopter owned by the private security firm Blackwater USA crashed Tuesday in central Baghdad, killing five civilians on board, U.S. military officials said.

A small helicopter owned by the private security firm Blackwater USA crashed Tuesday in central Baghdad, killing five civilians on board, U.S. military officials said.

Anofficial,speaking in Washington on condition of anonymity,said Blackwater representativesand theU.S. military responded to the crash.

The official said the cause of the crash was not known and that it was too early to tell if it was linked to the downingof a U.S. army helicopter that killed a dozen American troops on Saturday.

According to a second U.S. military official, initial reports suggested that all five were on the helicopter and not casualties on the ground.

A senior Iraqi defence official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said a gunman with a PKC machine-gun downed the helicopter over the Sunni Muslim neighbourhood of Fadhil, where witnesses reported clashes between insurgents, and U.S. and Iraqi forces.

The officials did not want to give their names because details of the crash had not officially been made public.

Blackwater staff killed in well-known 2004 attack

U.S. Embassy spokesman Lou Fintor confirmed that American officialsare investigating reports that a civilian aircraft had crashed.

"We are in the process of determining the facts and checking on the welfare and status of those involved," he told the Associated Press.

Officials at Blackwater USA, a massive compound in far northeastern North Carolina, did not return repeated telephone and e-mail messages left Tuesday. The company provides security in Iraq for officials from the State Department, trains military units from around the world and works for corporate clients.

The company was at the centre of a highly publicized scene of violence in Iraq inMarch 2004.

Fouremployeeswere killed inthat incidentwhen a frenzied mob of insurgents ambushed a supply convoy they were escorting through Fallujah. The insurgents burned and mutilated the guards and strung two of the bodies from a bridge.

The gruesome scene was filmed and broadcast worldwide, leading the U.S. military to launch a three-week siege of Fallujah.

Mother of earlier victim devastated

When Katy Helvenston heard Tuesday there was a Blackwater helicopter crash, she was devastated. Her son, Scott, was one of the employees killed in 2004.

"That just breaks my heart,"she said."I'm so sick of these kids dying."

According to insurance claims on file at the Department of Labour, 770 civilian contractors from the U.S. and other countrieswere killed in Iraqbetween the beginning of the war in March 2003and Dec.31, 2006.

The helicopter crash comes a day after a senior U.S. military official announced that there was evidence that the Black Hawk helicopter that crashed northeast of Baghdad on Saturday, killing all 12 U.S. soldiers on board, may have been shot down.

Searchers at the scene found a tube that could be part of a shoulder-fired weapon that may have been used to shoot down the aircraft, said the official, who requested anonymity because the investigation was still continuing.