updated 8/16/2005 12:37:48 PM ET 2005-08-16T16:37:48

Two helicopters carrying NATO-led forces to prepare for next month’s elections crashed Tuesday in the desert in western Afghanistan, killing at least 17 Spanish troops, officials said.

There were conflicting reports about what caused the crash, with Afghan, U.S. and NATO officials saying it was an accident but Spain saying it was possible the choppers were shot down. Five troops also were injured during an emergency landing by one of the choppers, Spanish Defense Minister Jose Bono said.

Afghan army commander Abdul Wahab Walizada, whose troops are providing security in the area near Herat, said the aircraft came too close to each other while flying and their rotor blades collided. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the crash was caused by a sandstorm, although Walizada said the weather was fine at the time.

Bono dismissed Walizada’s suggestion and said hostile fire could not be ruled out after the pilot of one helicopter reported seeing a column of black smoke in a nearby valley.

Accident or attack?
“It could have been an accident or it could have been an attack from the exterior,” he said in Madrid.

Maj. Andrew Elmes, a spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, said it was too soon to know the cause, but it was believed to have been an accident and not a result of rebel activity.

He said earlier that mechanical failure may have been to blame. Herat province is largely free of violence by Taliban-led rebels.

“We do not think the helicopter crashed because of enemy activity. We think it was an accident,” Elmes said. “The second helicopter landed heavily. There are survivors from that helicopter.”

He said rescuers had reached the site.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said preliminary information showed no indication the aircraft was shot down or collided with another craft.

The victims were the first Spanish troops to be killed in Afghanistan, officials said. Spain has about 800 troops in Afghanistan assisting the NATO-led security force.

The helicopter that crashed belonged to the international security force.

U.S. copter previously shot down
The crash came less than two months after suspected insurgents shot down a U.S. military Chinook helicopter in eastern Kunar province — a hotbed for Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents — near the border with Pakistan. All 16 U.S. servicemen on board were killed.

Elmes said both choppers in Tuesday’s incident were on a training mission to support crucial Sept. 18 legislative elections — the next major step toward democracy for Afghanistan after more than two decades of war and civil strife.

Taliban-led rebels vowed to sabotage the polls and have stepped up attacks in recent months, mostly in the east and south and rarely in Herat.

Bono said the two Spanish helicopters were flying together before the accident. One pilot reported seeing a column of black smoke in a nearby valley, flew closer to the spot, concluded it might signal an attack from the ground and decided to make an emergency landing.

The other helicopter crashed, he said. The level area was conducive to an easy emergency landing, which “leads the military high command not to rule out the hypothesis that it could be an attack rather than an accident.”

Walizada said one of the choppers burned.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero broke off his vacation in the Canary Islands to return to Madrid and meet with defense ministry officials, his office said.

Second deadly incident for Spaniards
The crash was the second major deadly incident involving Spanish troops deployed in Afghanistan. In May 2003, 62 Spanish peacekeepers returning home from Afghanistan died when their Russian-built YAK-42 plane crashed near Trabzon in northwest Turkey. Thirteen Ukrainian and Belarusian crew members of the aircraft also died.

In April, 15 U.S. service members and three American civilians were killed when their Chinook went down in a sandstorm while returning to the main U.S. base at Bagram.

NATO’s force in Afghanistan includes about 10,000 troops from 36 nations. It maintains security in the capital, Kabul, and the country’s north and west. It plans to increase its size by an unspecified amount and take over from the U.S.-led coalition in the violence-wracked south early next year, before gradually moving into the east.

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