NATO helicopter crash in Afghanistan kills 17.

A NATO helicopter crashed in western Afghanistan Tuesday, killing at least 17 Spanish peacekeeping troops on a training exercise for key parliamentary elections, officials said.

The cause of the crash south of the city of Herat was unknown but an Afghan intelligence official said it had collided in mid-air with another helicopter.

"Seventeen Spanish soldiers travelling on a Cougar helicopter of the Spanish armed forces died today in Afghanistan," Spain's defence ministry said in a brief statement.

The helicopter crashed at around 11:00 am (0630 GMT) and the cause and circumstances were undetermined, it added.

Around 1,000 Spanish troops are in Afghanistan on a UN-sanctioned peacekeeping mission as the country prepares for next month's legislative polls, the first since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001.

Captain Michele Cortese of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) told AFP the crashed helicopter was "conducting a training exercise for election support."

Officials were reportedly investigating a sandstorm in the area as the possible cause of the crash. Hostile fire was regarded as unlikely because western Afghanistan is more peaceful than the south and east, where Taliban insurgents are active.

An Afghan intelligence official, asking not to be named, said that "two helicopters crashed into each other while flying," without giving further details.

"The reasons behind the incident are yet to be known," he added.

The Internet edition of Spain's El Mundo newspaper said the helicopter was being accompanied by another Spanish aircraft. It added that the highest ranking soldier on board was a captain.

The Cougar went down between the Adraskan and Mir Daud districts of Herat province, said Nisar Ahmed Paikar, the criminal investigation director of Herat police.

The crash comes less than two months after the US military suffered its worst blow in Afghanistan, when an MH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down by suspected Taliban militants in the eastern province of Kunar.

All 16 people on board were killed in the June 28 incident, while rebels killed three US Navy SEAL commandos whom the helicopter had gone to rescue. A fourth soldier was later found alive.

Another US Chinook carrying 18 people, three of them civilians, went down in an accident in bad weather in April and all on board were killed.

ISAF only recently boosted troop numbers in Afghanistan to 10,400, from just over 8,000, to improve security before the parliamentary and local government elections.

The force guards Kabul and western and northern parts of the country, while some 19,000 US troops are battling militants in the south and southeast.

A battalion under Spanish command and based in Herat was due to reach full operating capacity by the end of the month to provide security for the elections, a NATO official said last week.

[Source: Agence France-Prese, Kabul, Afg, 16Aug05]

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