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U.S. Helicopter Crashes in Iraq; Nine Killed

There were no survivors among the nine American soldiers aboard the medical evacuation helicopter that crashed about 2:20 p.m. local time while making an “emergency landing” near Fallujah, said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt in Baghdad.

The area was cordoned off and reporters were not immediately allowed to get near the wreckage, according to The New York Times.

“We do not have any information on the cause of the crash at this time,” Nicci Trent, a military spokeswoman in Baghdad, said, according to the Times.

Some residents of the Jumayla village told reporters on the scene that they saw the helicopter catch fire and fall to the ground while others said that the aircraft was hit in the tail by a rocket.

Mohammed Ahmed al-Jamali, a farmer who lives close to the crash site, told the Associated Press he heard the sound of a rocket, saw it hit the helicopter in the tail and watched the chopper crash before rushing to the scene, only to find all aboard dead.

“I was in the farm, I heard the sound, looked up and I saw the rocket hit. It hit it in the tail,” al-Jamali told the news service.

Fallujah has been a focal point of the ongoing resistance against the U.S. occupation in postwar Iraq. Insurgents have previously attacked U.S. helicopters near the city, including a Chinook shot down Nov. 2 that killed 16 American troops and injured 26 others aboard.

Most recently a U.S. helicopter was shot down Jan. 2 in the Fallujah area, killing one soldier. Military officials said it almost certainly was shot down by rebels.

Editor’s Note: U.S. officials said Jan. 10 that the helicopter crash that killed four crew members and five passengers was indeed caused by enemy ground fire.

Thursday’s crash happened as the U.S. authorities released more than 60 Iraqis from prison the day after American officials announced a new amnesty program that will set hundreds of low-threat detainees free.

The U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, announced Wednesday that some 500 prisoners held for months on suspicion of associating with anti-American insurgents would be released in the coming weeks, with 100 to be freed Thursday.

According to initial reports, Thursday’s first prisoner release appeared to be routine and not related to the new program. The men released were brought out of the Abu Ghraib jail near Baghdad in two open trucks late in the afternoon and let out on the side of the road about a mile away.

“This has nothing to do with Bremer’s announcement. These are the ones who are routinely released every week,” Lt. Col. Roy Shere, a spokesman for the 800th Military Police Brigade that operates prisons in Iraq, told the AP.

The U.S. military has an estimated 9,500 people in detention throughout Iraq and releases some almost every day, most have been held for 72 hours or less. Troops also detain new suspects every day in raids across Iraq.

Also Thursday, officials said an Air Force C-5 transport plane with 63 passengers and crew aboard made an emergency landing at Baghdad International Airport. U.S. military officials told wire services the plane was likely hit by hostile fire.

The military also said a U.S. soldier died Wednesday of injuries suffered in a mortar attack that wounded 33 other troops and a civilian west of Baghdad.