At Central Command in Qatar, U.S. commander General Tommy Franks confirmed an Apache helicopter had not returned from a mission, and its two-man crew missing. He denied Iraqi claims that a second chopper had been downed, or that any aircraft had been shot down.
In the Iraqi television report, an announcer said a farmer had shot down the armored helicopter.
“The heroic farmer Ali Obeid-Mingash… shot down the Apache with his rifle. These are… the two American pilots who were sent by the little Bush to the inferno of death,” the correspondent said, referring to President Bush. The farmer stood by his side, smiling and holding a rifle.
The two men did not speak on camera, but reportedly appeared confused, turning their heads in different directions as they were filmed. They were shown drinking tea and water, and were wearing cream-colored pilots’ overalls. They appeared to be in good health.
Iraqi television later showed documents allegedly belonging to the men, including a Texas driver’s license and credit cards. The station also broadcast pictures of two helmets, which they said belonged to the helicopter’s crew.
The report also said the two men were prisoners of war, and would be treated in accordance with international law.
The helicopter shown on television Monday showed little if any signs of damage, suggesting that it may have been forced to land by mechanical problems rather than ground fire, U.S. officials countered.
The New York Times is reporting that small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades from Iraqi forces downed two U.S. helicopters and forced 30 others to return to their base.
Reuters photographer Faleh Kheiber visited the site where the helicopter went down and said the Apache was still loaded with at least two air-to-surface missiles. Eyewitnesses told him it had flown low over palm trees, allowing farmers and soldiers to fire at it.
In the footage being shown on Iraqi TV, men in Arab headdresses holding Kalashnikov automatic rifles danced around the aircraft. Iraqi state television also showed pictures of two helmets apparently belonging to members of the crew, as well as documents and other papers lying on the ground.
Air Force Master Sgt. Grant Windsor told the Associated Press the Defense Department is evaluating the tape.
CNN correspondent Karl Penhaul, accompanying the U.S. Army Fifth Corps 11th Attack Helicopter Regiment, said the helicopter’s crew was part of a unit had been on a night-time combat mission targeting units of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s elite Republican Guard.
Iraqi television said the Apache shown had come down near the city of Karbala, 110 km (70 miles) southwest of Baghdad. There were reports of helicopter strikes by U.S. forces south of Baghdad overnight.
The Apache is a twin-engine army attack helicopter that has been deployed in the 1991 Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.