BAGHDAD - A private helicopter carrying civilians was shot down over central Iraq on Thursday, killing six American security guards and five others, according to a U.S. official.
No one aboard the Mi-8 helicopter survived, according to the company that managed the chartered aircraft. The helicopter was 12 miles north of Baghdad on its way to a U.S. military base in Tikrit when it was struck by ground fire.
In a separate attack near Ramadi, an American security guard was killed as a bomb exploded near his armored vehicle.
This morning, U.S. military officials announced that two members of the 2nd Marine Division were killed by a roadside bomb Wednesday in Ramadi.
They also said that a soldier from the 1st Corps Support Command was killed and another was hurt today when a roadside bomb exploded near their vehicle north of Tall Afar in northern Iraq.
All seven of the dead American civilians were employees of Blackwater USA, a North Carolina security firm. The company has lost at least 16 employees in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion two years ago, more than any other security contractor, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
"This is a very sad day for the Blackwater family," company President Gary Jackson said in a statement. "We lost seven of our friends to attacks by terrorists in Iraq and our thoughts and prayers go out to their family members."
The five other men who died in the helicopter incident - three Bulgarians and two Fijians - worked for Toronto-based SkyLink Aviation and its Bulgarian subcontractor in Iraq, Heli Air Services. SkyLink has a contract with the Defense Department to ferry personnel around Iraq.
More than 20 helicopters have crashed or been shot down in Iraq since May 2003, causing the deaths of 129 people, according to Associated Press. Militants frequently fire shoulder-launched missiles or rocket-propelled grenades at aircraft. A British C-130 military cargo plane went down north of Baghdad in January, killing 15 people, although the Royal Air Force has not determined the cause of the crash.
The last week has brought deadly reminders of the toll the insurgency has taken on American contractors. At least four other Western civilians have been killed recently, all of them along the road between Baghdad's secured Green Zone and the international airport.
On Tuesday, insurgent snipers ambushed a British security firm's convoy near the airport, killing three guards, one of them an American. And Saturday a car bomb hit another private convoy on the airport road, killing a Western security guard and Marla Ruzicka, an activist from Northern California.
By last year, an estimated 50,000 private security personnel were working for Western companies in Iraq. Private security details have guarded high-ranking Iraqi and American officials as well as corporate employees engaged in reconstruction efforts. Many guards are former members of the U.S. armed forces and can earn more than $100,000 a year with "danger pay" bonuses.
Contractors have become increasingly targeted by insurgents trying to halt reconstruction. Since the invasion, at least 284 contractors have been killed in Iraq, according to Labor Department data. The figure includes Americans as well as contractors from other countries.
The death of the six Blackwater employees Thursday represents the second-deadliest incident for U.S. contractors in Iraq. In April 2004, six truck drivers working for Halliburton Co. were killed, and a seventh is missing and presumed dead.
Among the dozens of security firms in Iraq, Blackwater is considered one of the elite. Many of its employees were part of U.S. Special Forces, and it has taken on some of the most dangerous missions.
Four of its people were slain in Fallouja in March 2004. Iraqis burned their bodies and hung two of them from a bridge. The families of those employees have sued the North Carolina company, charging that it was negligent in safeguarding the men.
Meanwhile, conflicting accounts emerged regarding the slaying this week of 19 men in a soccer stadium in the western town of Haditha. Witnesses initially said the men were all off-duty Iraqi soldiers. But Lt. Col. Frederick P. Wellman, a spokesman for the U.S.-led multinational force in Iraq, said the victims were local fishermen.
Times staff writer T. Christian Miller in Washington contributed to this report.
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