Afghanistan helicopter crash 'a tragic accident'

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Media captionMaj Gen Richard Felton: "Our heartfelt condolences go out to the families"

A fatal helicopter crash in southern Afghanistan which killed all five UK personnel on board appears to have been a "tragic accident", the MoD has said.

An investigation has begun into how the Lynx helicopter came down in Kandahar province on Saturday morning.

Commander Joint Helicopter Command Maj Gen Richard Felton said it was a reminder of the risks UK troops still face as they withdraw from Afghanistan.

The prime minister paid tribute to the men, whose families have been told.

Three of the servicemen, from the Army Air Corps, and an airman, from the Royal Air Force, were stationed at RAF Odiham, in Hampshire, the Ministry of Defence said.

The fifth serviceman, an Army reservist from 3 Military Intelligence Battalion, was based in London. Their names have not been released.

"Our heartfelt condolences go out to the families at this difficult time," Maj Gen Felton said outside RAF Odiham.

"The investigation into this accident is ongoing but this is not the time now for speculation or comment."

'Technical problem'

The MoD said the accident happened during "a routine flight" and that the crash site, close to Kandahar airfield, had been cordoned off.

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said the fleet of Lynx Mk 9A helicopters have been judged safe to continue to operate while a "thorough investigation" is carried out into the crash.

He said he was "deeply saddened" to learn of the deaths of the five service personnel, saying "their sacrifice will not be forgotten".

Speaking earlier on Sky News, Foreign Secretary William Hague said: "This appears to have been a tragic accident," adding it was "a reminder of the work that our troops still do in Afghanistan".

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Image caption The crash involved a Lynx helicopter, one of which is seen here being refuelled at Camp Bastion

The Taliban says its fighters shot the aircraft down but BBC defence correspondent Caroline Wyatt says her sources suggest the cause of the crash could have been "technical problems".

A former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, Col Richard Kemp, added: "The Taliban are masters of propaganda - they claim huge numbers of things that haven't actually happened.

"Of course it's a feather in their hat if they've managed to shoot down a British helicopter but if the MoD is saying, 'It's not been shot down, it's a technical problem,' then I certainly believe that."

Speaking to BBC Radio 5 live he said retrieving the wreckage and ensuring the men's bodies could be repatriated would be a hazardous operation.

"This is a territory the Taliban operate in fairly extensively so it will require a large number of troops and they themselves will be at considerable risk."

Image caption The crash happened in Kandahar province

David Cameron said the incident "brings home to us all once again how our armed forces continue to put their lives on the line to help the people of Afghanistan".

"I cannot pay high enough tribute to each and every one of them for the job that they do and the sacrifices that they make," he said.

Labour leader Ed Miliband said it was a "tragic and poignant reminder of the sacrifices made by our armed forces in serving our country with bravery and distinction".

'Exceptional record'

It is the first fatal accident of the Afghan conflict involving a UK military helicopter and the third biggest loss of life of British troops in a single incident in the country since the invasion in 2001.

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Media captionPreliminary results of the crash investigation will probably be announced very soon, according to defence analyst Paul Beaver

Defence analyst Paul Beaver said the Westland Lynx Mk 9, which is used for reconnaissance, evacuating casualties and moving UK troops, had an "exceptional record".

He told BBC Breakfast he did not envisage other Lynx helicopters being grounded "because that notice would have gone out already".

The MoD said it did not know how long it would take investigators to report back on what happened.

The deaths bring the number of British forces personnel killed in the conflict in Afghanistan to 453.

Image caption Flowers were left and flags flew at half mast at RAF Odiham

Nato forces, including UK troops, are preparing to withdraw combat troops by the end of this year, handing responsibility for fighting the Taliban uprising to Afghanistan's army and police.

The crash came after the preliminary results of elections held in Afghanistan on 5 April were released on Saturday, showing that no candidate had reached the 50% needed for an outright win.

The vote is now expected to be decided in a run-off poll on 28 May.