'Up to 15' troops killed in Hercules crash

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As many as 15 military personnel were feared dead in what threatened to be the biggest single loss of British life since the conflict in Iraq began after an RAF transport aircraft crashed north of Baghdad yesterday.

As many as 15 military personnel were feared dead in what threatened to be the biggest single loss of British life since the conflict in Iraq began after an RAF transport aircraft crashed north of Baghdad yesterday.

Wreckage from the C-130 Hercules scattered over a wide area when it came down without warning en route from Baghdad to the city of Balad, which houses one of the largest US airbases in Iraq.

Last night, the Ministry of Defence had still not released official figures on the number of fatalities, but a military source said about 10 were dead and it could rise to 15. "We are investigating and our thoughts are with the families of those who were on board the plane," the source said. Experts said the aircraft has an excellent safety record, and there was speculation that it had been brought down by enemy fire.

A sombre Tony Blair confirmed British troops had died in the crash during a televised speech on the success of the elections from Downing Street. He said the British people had "yet again" been reminded of the sacrifices that the armed forces had made and the "extraordinary" job they did.

"This is the true face of the British Army: brave, committed, professional the world over, doing an extraordinary job on behalf of their country. This country and the wider world will never forget them."

The Hercules, which is based at RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire, can hold up to 128 troops, depending on the model. It was believed to be on the regular supply run between Basra and Baghdad, making a stop at the huge coalition airbase at Balad, when it came down 25 miles north-west of Baghdad.

Known as the "workhorse" of the air, the Hercules needs to be manned by a crew of between three and six people. But one expert said that it could have been carrying up to nine crew members, depending on the operation and whether goods-loaders were required.

The favoured aircraft of the SAS, it is used to transport cargo and troops by armies around by world, and is regarded as being especially useful in Iraq because of its ability to land in desert conditions.

The cause of the crash remains unknown, but at RAF Lyneham, Wing Commander Nigel Arnold said a "thorough investigation" would be held.

He said: "It would also be wrong of us at this stage to speculate on the cause of the crash but we can assure you that a thorough investigation will take place. The welfare of the families is our priority." He added:"We are in the process of contacting the families of those involved."

The largest single British loss of life in Iraq so far occurred in March 2003, when eight troops died when the US helicopter they were in crashed. In total, 75 British troops have died in Iraq since the conflict began.

Balad has been reported as being the most unpopular destination for US C-130 crews, with insurgents known to be targeting coalition aircraft. Earlier this month, a US Air Force officer spoke of the danger faced by the crews. Captain Kurt Kresmer said that insurgents were using small firearms in an attempt to bring down aircraft. "They're obviously watching us fly in and out. Their tactics have changed. They're trying to get up small arms fire to hit us," he said.

But Chris Yates, the aviation security editor of Jane's Transport said small firearms were "unlikely" to have bought down a plane the size of a Hercules, which is 112ft long. "It is a possibility that a surface-to-air missile could have been used to bring down the craft. It would depend on the altitude the craft had reached. SAMs can reach heights of up to 10,000 feet," he said.

"It is not yet clear which version of the aircraft came down. But one version, the C-130J, has a ceiling of 28,000 feet." He added: "There is always the possibility that there was a technical malfunction."

A BBC defence analyst, Paul Beaver, said: "One of the reasons the Hercules has been so reliable and it has had very few crashes is because it is so well designed. They go on thousands of missions every year and each one normally flies around 500 hours during that time. Half of the British fleet is in the air at any one time." The last serious crash involving an RAF Hercules was in 1994, when a C-130 crashed into a hillside in north-east Scotland after stalling at low altitude. All nine of those on board were killed.

The crash did not prevent Mr Blair from defending the decision to hold the elections, despite concerns about continued violence. He said the elections represented a "blow right to the heart of the global terrorism that threatens destruction, not just in Iraq but in Britain and virtually every major country around the world. I know the war in Iraq deeply divided opinion here and right round the world, but I also know that whatever views people have of how we came to this point, we all of us will want to embrace the birth of Iraq's new democracy."

Speaking from the White House, President George Bush paid tribute to American and British troops who had lost their lives as he congratulated Iraq on the elections. "By participating in free elections, the Iraqi people have firmly rejected the anti-democratic ideology of the terrorists. They have refused to be intimidated by thugs and assassins.

"Some Iraqis were killed while exercising their rights as citizens," he said. "We also mourn the American and British military personnel who lost their lives today. Their sacrifices were made in a vital cause of freedom, peace in a troubled region, and a more secure future for us all."

In Britain, violence erupted in special polling booths set up for expatriate Iraqis. The BBC reported that Iraqis burned flags and chased around 200 people protesting against the elections. The protesters were from Hizb-ut-Tahrir ­ an Islamic group that opposed the elections in Iraq. David Kahrmann, from the Iraq Election Team, said: "The Iraqi community here were saying 'Why are these people who are not even from Iraq protesting against these elections?"