Britain Denies Taliban Downed Helo, Killing 5

The British government has rejected claims that the Taliban shot down a helicopter which crashed in southern Afghanistan, killing five British military personnel, saying the deaths appeared to have been a tragic accident. The local Afghan governor said no insurgents were near the site at the time.

The Ministry of Defence listed those killed: Captain Thomas Clarke, Warrant Officer Spencer Faulkner, Corporal James Walters, all of the Army Air Corps (AAC) lost their lives together with Flight Lieutenant Rakesh Chauhan of the Royal Air Force and Lance Corporal Oliver Thomas of the Intelligence Corps.

The crash of the Lynx aircraft in Kandahar province on Saturday was the third greatest single loss of life among British troops since the conflict in Afghanistan began in 2001.

The defence secretary, William Hague, rejected a Taliban claim of responsibility. "This appears to have been a tragic accident, although it is still being investigated," he told Sky News.

"It is a reminder of the work that our troops still do in Afghanistan. Of course at the end of this year we will come to an end of the combat role, or having our troops there in any significant numbers. But the work that they do is still dangerous, it is still very valuable in Afghanistan."

Mahmood Asakzai, the governor of Takht-e Pol district, where the helicopter came down, said the crash site, known as Charghai mountain, was remote and unpopulated by insurgents. He said: "In terms of security, there is no Taliban, the area is very safe. It is a very large mountain and there are no houses on it - the surrounding area is like a desert."

Helicopters from international forces based in southern Afghanistan had used the area for training for more than a decade, he said, adding that locals went to the site soon after the crash.

"When we went to the area it was secure -- there were no Taliban. The helicopter crash site was right at the top of the mountain. The weather was clear and sunny at the time," he said.

Major General Richard Felton, who heads the joint helicopter command, read a statement outside RAF Odiham. He said: "All those within the joint helicopter command, in particular those stationed here at RAF Odiham, as well as those in wider defence, will be deeply saddened by this dreadful news.

"Our heartfelt condolences go out to the families at this most difficult time. The investigation into this accident is ongoing but this is not the time now for speculation or comment. Our focus for the immediate future is to ensure that the families receive the support they need at this most difficult of times."

It is not believed that other Lynx helicopters in the country will be grounded in the wake of the crash. An MoD spokeswoman said: "The investigation is now under way, and the area of the crash has been cordoned off. We cannot go into further details. At this stage it is not known how long the investigation might last or when investigators will deliver their report, but it will be a thorough inquiry."

On Saturday, David Cameron expressed his condolences to the families. His deputy, Nick Clegg, added his words yesterday, saying: "This incident is a very sad reminder of the vital but dangerous job that our armed forces are doing every day to bring security to the people of Afghanistan. I would like to pay tribute to their service and to the ultimate sacrifice made by those who died yesterday."

In September 2006, a Nimrod surveillance aircraft from RAF Kinloss in Scotland exploded in mid-air near Kandahar, killing all 14 servicemen on board, while in March 2012 six soldiers died when their Warrior armoured fighting vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device in Helmand province.

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