War in the Balkans: Weaponry - Apache crashes during training

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The Independent Online
THE MORE powerful and high-tech the weaponry, the more America's enemies rejoice when it goes wrong. So it proved again yesterday when, with the memory of the shooting down of an "invisible" stealth bomber still fresh in people's minds, the US military had yet another piece of wreckage to explain away.

This time, the debris in a field 30 miles north of Rinas Airport in Tirana, the Albanian capital, was from one of the long-awaited AH-64 Apache helicopters recently stationed there.

Much to the enjoyment of the population of neighbouring Serbia, living under the Nato bombardment, the helicopter crashed and burst into flames during a training mission at 10.15pm on Monday. Its two-man crew escaped with only minor injuries.

Fortunately for them, the accident happened during a search and rescue practice mission in the company of a Black Hawk helicopter which was able to scramble a recovery operation.

According to the American military, a Medevac helicopter was with them within seven minutes and, four minutes later, they were in the hands of medics at the 212th Medical Army Surgical Hospital - the last of its kind in the US Army. The other Mash units have been replaced by Combat Surgical Units.

Perhaps less fortunately for the Americans, a network television news crew was on board the Black Hawk and it is understood they filmed the incident, footage which will probably find its way onto Yugoslav television.

Last night, the American military ruled out sabotage and enemy fire as causes of the crash, suggesting it was the result of mechanical failure. The 24 Apaches expected had already been reduced to 23 when one developed engine failure in Italy.

Nevertheless, the Army was in a positive frame of mind. "We are not going to be wavered by this incident," said Lieutenant-Colonel Garrie Dornan. "This is the cost of doing business. We plan to drive on with our mission undeterred."

Each Apache attack helicopter costs $16m (pounds 10m). Much feared by troops on the ground, the Apache carries Hellfire guided missiles to destroy tanks, armour and artillery, while using non-guided rockets and nose-mounted cannon to wreak havoc among "soft" vehicles and personnel.

It distinguished itself during the Gulf War when it fired the first allied shots of Operation Desert Storm, hitting a radar site and creating a blind Iraqi corridor for allied aircraft.

Meanwhile American A-10 "Warthog" tank-killer jets were seen circling the skies over Kosovo yesterday for the first time, in sight of the Albanian border. Several explosions were heard from the Morini border post, 12 miles north-east Kukes.

At the border station, guards watched as the Warthogs dropped flares to ward off heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles. No missiles were seen fired at the aircraft, which fly lower and slower than the jet fighters that have carried out most of the Nato missions so far.