Two British soldiers killed in Iraq as helicopters collide

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Two British servicemen were killed and another seriously injured yesterday when the helicopters they were travelling in crashed north of Baghdad during a special forces mission.

The two Pumas, helicopters flown by the RAF, collided in mid-air in the early hours of the morning south-west of Taji, 12 miles north of the capital.

"Initial reports indicate that the crash was an accident and was not a result of an attack by insurgents. An investigation is under way," said the Defence Secretary, Des Browne.

Yesterday's deaths come at a particularly difficult time for UK forces in Iraq. With eight deaths so far this month, they bring the total number of fatalities since the 2003 invasion to 142.

The Ministry of Defence refused to give any details of what the British personnel, who predominantly operate in the south of Iraq, were doing in the area other than to say they were on a "routine operational flight".

While the UK has several hundred service personnel working alongside the Americans in Baghdad, it is believed the Pumas were involved in a special forces mission supported by regular troops.

The seriously injured serviceman was airlifted to a US field hospital near Baghdad along with another with lesser injuries. Two more walking wounded were said to have been well enough to return to their units.

The next of kin of the two dead men have been informed, though the MoD would only say one was Army and one RAF.

Tony Blair expressed his sympathy to the families as he once again insisted Britain's foreign policy was "justified and right".

"I reflect again as we've lost forces in Iraq today - for the families this is always a terrible time, a time of great grief and anguish," said the Prime Minister.

"But what our forces are doing there, what British forces are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, is they are fighting the same forces of terrorism and extremism that are operating around the world today."

US forces helped to seal off the site of the crash as British troops tried to recover the Pumas, both from RAF Benson in Oxfordshire.

* Six bombs exploded in predominantly Shia areas of Baghdad yesterday, killing at least 45 people. The renewal of sectarian violence has set back the US push to pacify Baghdad.