Nation & World

Accounts of Blackwater crash still murky

New details emerged Wednesday about the downing of a private U.S. security company helicopter Tuesday, with U.S. and Iraqi officials saying four of five Americans who died in the incident were shot execution-style.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad offered condolences for the five Americans killed in the helicopter crash in Baghdad. He called them good men and said he had traveled with them.

The aircraft, belonging to the Blackwater USA security company in North Carolina, went down as it flew over a dangerous Sunni neighborhood while a gunfight was raging.

Confusion still cloaked the circumstances of the crash.

A senior Iraqi military official said a machine-gunner downed the helicopter and four of the men were shot execution-style on the ground. But a U.S. military official in Washington said there were no indications that the aircraft had been shot out of the sky. Three Sunni insurgent groups claimed responsibility for the crash, with one posting on its Web site the ID cards of one of the Americans.

In Washington, a U.S. defense official said four of the five were shot in the back of the head, but he did not know whether they were alive when shot. The defense official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

The helicopter went down after racing to help a U.S. Embassy ground convoy that came under fire in a neighborhood on the east side of the Tigris, said a U.S. diplomatic official in Washington.

The doomed helicopter swooped into electrical wires before the crash. U.S. officials said it was not clear whether gunfire brought down the aircraft or caused its pilot to veer into the wires during evasive maneuvers.

A second helicopter also was struck, but there were no casualties among its crew, said the diplomatic official.

A U.S. official in Baghdad, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said three Blackwater helicopters were involved. One had landed for an unknown reason, and one of the Blackwater employees was shot at that point, he said. That helicopter apparently was able to take off, but a second one then crashed in the same area, he added without explaining the involvement of the third helicopter. It was unclear whether the wounded employee survived.

Al-Jazeera television said the 1920 Revolution Brigades, a Sunni insurgent group, claimed responsibility for shooting down the helicopter and showed a video taken by a cell phone of a mass of smoldering twisted metal that Al-Jazeera said was the wrecked chopper.

The Islamic Army, in a statement posted on the Internet, said it downed a helicopter about 1 p.m. Tuesday in the nearby Maydan area.

Another Sunni insurgent group, the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, also claimed responsibility and posted identity cards of men who were on the helicopter on a Web site, including at least two that bore the name of Arthur Laguna, who was later identified by his mother as among those killed.

Laguna was a 52-year-old pilot for Blackwater who previously served in the Army and the California National Guard, his mother, Lydia Laguna of Rio Linda, Calif., told AP.

It was the second helicopter crash in Iraq in four days. A U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter went down Saturday northeast of Baghdad, killing all 12 service members on board. The U.S. military in Baghdad has refused to confirm a report by a Pentagon official that debris at the crash site indicated the helicopter was downed by a surface-to-air missile.