The Pentagon said that the fighters, flying out of Incirlik in Turkey on regular patrol in the no-fly zone over Kurdistan, mistook the two US Army Blackhawk UH-60 general utility helicopters for Iraqi
Mi-24 Hinds. Although an Awacs reconnaissance aircraft was overhead, overseeing the operation, the F-15s fired air-to-air missiles, wiping out the entire high-powered allied mission going to meet Kurdish leaders in Salahuddin. The meeting was to introduce the new head of the Military Co-ordination Centre, Colonel Richer Melhurn, to Kurdish officials, and for them to say goodbye to the outgoing commander, Colonel Jerry Thomson.
The dead included the American, French, British and Turkish colonels on the MCC. Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, said in Washington that the Britons were a lieutenant-colonel and a major. The Ministry of Defence said their names would not be released until the bodies had been recovered and next of kin informed.
Mr Clinton said the US was trying to find out why the fighters and the Awacs did not realise they were attacking friendly aircraft. The helicopters' identification beacons should have been operating 'routinely', said General John Shalikashvili, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But he did not say whether the Pentagon knew if they were.
It was later confirmed that the helicopters had filed an accurate flight plan for their trip from the headquarters of the the MCC in Zakho, near the Turkish border. The F-15 pilots had made visual contact with the Blackhawks before firing, said the Defense Secretary, William Perry. It was not known whether they tried to communicate with them. Mr Perry, who was due to leave today to visit Japan and Korea, postponed the trip to supervise the investigation.
The decision to open fire is normally left to the pilots under present rules of engagement. The crew of the Awacs, who had earlier spoken to the helicopter pilots, apparently lost sight of them.
However, identification equipment should have prevented the disaster, according to Bill Gunston, a former RAF pilot and aviation journalist who helps to compile Jane's All The World's Aircraft. He added: 'Helicopters don't fire back at fighters. There's no reason why the pilots can't go up close and have a good look at the aircraft.'
Another question for the Pentagon inquiry is how the helicopters were so far inside the no-fly zone. American planes, with the British and the French, have been enforcing the zone north of the 36th parallel in northern Iraq since 1991. The incident took place some 60 miles north of Iraqi lines.
The shooting-down was the latest in a catalogue of errors by the American military, in which targets have been wrongly identified and immediately attacked. 'Our American friends pull quicker than their shadows; they are real Lucky Lukes,' said one allied diplomat.
Although the US Air Force emerged from the 1991 Gulf war with an enhanced reputation for accuracy, pilots often made mistakes in identifying targets. They claimed to have destroyed 90 Iraqi Scud missile launchers but an air force study established that none had been destroyed. Most of the targets were ordinary lorries or decoys.
During that war nine British soldiers were killed when a US aircraft fired on two British armoured vehicles. In 1988 an Iranair airliner was shot down by the USS Vincennes and a Turkish warship was shot up during Nato exercises in the Aegean. On Monday, US jets dropped dud bombs on Gorazde in Bosnia.
The MCC is part of Operation Provide Comfort, a successor to allied operations in northern Iraq after the Gulf war. Its mission is to ensure that the Iraqi army cannot redeploy inside Kurdistan, where it drove 1.5 million refugees into the mountains of Turkey and Iran after their post-Gulf war revolt against President Saddam Hussein.
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