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Copter: Minister believes accident

By CNN Madrid Bureau Chief Al Goodman

A Spanish helicopter crashed Tuesday near Herat, Afganistan.



MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- After visiting the site in western Afghanistan where 17 Spanish soldiers died in a helicopter crash, Spanish Defense Minister Jose Bono on Wednesday said that an accident was the most likely cause of the Tuesday incident, although investigators have not ruled out an attack.

Bono told Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, in a conference call, that experts "had not found indications" of hostile fire in the crash, and that instead, "the most probable hypothesis" was that the helicopter crashed due to "strong winds and gusts," a spokesman for the prime minister told CNN.

Bono added, however, that no line of investigation was being ruled out yet, the spokesman added.

Afghan officials have also told reporters that they suspect there was no hostile fire in the area of the crash, in western Afghanistan, about 20 kilometers from the Spanish base at Herat.

In another development, the leading Spanish newspaper in northwestern Spain, where 12 of the 17 soldiers had been based, reported that the likely cause was hostile fire.

The 17 troops -- among the forces providing security support for next month's parliamentary and local elections in Afghanistan -- were serving under NATO command as part of a Spanish contingent of about 800 peacekeeping troops there. Spanish troops are mostly based in Herat.

The helicopter was one of two Spanish choppers 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 that craft thought an attack might have been under way and made a hard landing in a nearby valley, slightly injuring five 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 in flat, prairie-like terrain.

La Voz de Galicia, the leading northwestern Spanish newspaper, reported that the pilot of a second Spanish troop helicopter accompanying the one that crashed had called to a relative of one of the dead soldiers to say there had been hostile fire.

It quoted a soldier aboard the second helicopter who also said there had been hostile fire. The sources in the story were unnamed and the Defense Ministry had no comment on the report.

Fighting pitting U.S. and Afghan forces against Taliban militants has been raging during the run up to the Sept. 18 Afghan parliamentary and local elections. Campaigning has started for the many seats up for grabs.

The U.S. military, in its latest news release, said Wednesday that two U.S. service members were wounded when Afghan special forces and U.S. Marines fought insurgents in Kunar province in the east on Tuesday.

Herat -- the area where the crash occurred -- is part of a region closer to Iran, a section of the country 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. But the 17 deaths were the first Spanish fatalities in Afghanistan.

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 believes the chopper 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.

The Spanish deaths bring the number of foreign troops killed in the operation to 280. The bulk of those -- 224 -- were Americans.

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