WASHINGTON, April 14 -- U.S. jet fighters shot down two American helicopters over northern Iraq Thursday after mistaking the helicopters for Iraqi aircraft violating the 'no-fly zone,' officials said. President Bill Clinton expressed 'terrible sorrow' for the deaths of 26 American and foreign peacekeepers.
The U.S. European Command said two U.S. Air Force F-15C aircraft shot down the two U.S. Army UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters assigned to Operation Provide Comfort after mistaking them for Iraqi Hind helicopters.
The incident occurred at about 0730 GMT, about 35 miles (55 km) north of Irbil in Iraq.
Clinton came before reporters at the White House to express regret over the tragedy, which he said had apparently taken the lives of 12 American crew members and at least eight allied nationals taking part in the United Nations peacekeeping effort.
The Pentagon later reported that 26 people were believed killed.
U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry said two British officers were among those killed and the French Defense Ministry in Paris said a 47- year-old French officer was also on board one of the downed aircraft.
After a previously scheduled meeting with Clinton, Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller said three Turkish officers were among the victims and that the American president had personally expressed his regrets.
'We have to investigate further before we can say anything more specific,' Ciller told reporters.
U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher officially telephoned the affected governments to express regret, including placing a call to French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe who asked for 'all information about the circumstances of this drama.'
U.N. officials in New York said the helicopters had been carrying the peacekeepers to a meeting with the UNICEF coordinator in northern Iraq to discuss the situation in the area.
One helicopter crashed in the Iraqi town of Denata, where 12 charred bodies were discovered, according to UNICEF. The other crashed in the town of Bekmaa, but rescue teams were not immediately able to reach the site.
Publicly, Clinton was quick to apologize for the episode that marked a major embarrassment for the United States, which along with British, French and Turkish forces patrol the air-exclusion zone over northern Iraq where Kurds fled after an aborted attempt to overthrow President Saddam Hussein following the Gulf war. The allied coalition also delivers relief supplies to the Kurds.
'On behalf of the American people I want to begin by expressing my deep sorrow for the tragedy this morning in Iraq and to extend my personal condolences to the families and loved ones of all of those who lost their lives,' Clinton said. 'We should join together in terrible sorrow and also in honoring the high purpose for which these individuals served in which they lost their lives.'
But he said despite the accident, the mission to aid the Kurds would not be abandoned. 'The important work they were doing must and will continue.'
Later, he started a law enforcement ceremony with a moment of silence.
The president also ordered Perry to launch 'a full inquiry' into the incident, which he said would focus in part on why the high-tech American surveillance AWACS aircraft involved was unable to correctly identify the U.S. helicopters.
Initial operational reports said the U.S. helicopters were mistakenly identified as Iraqi Hind helicopters operating in the northern 'no-fly' exclusion zone north of the 36th parallel. At the Pentagon and the White House, questions were immediately raised about why the helicopters were confused when they are so differently configured and were within visual range.
Perry said the United States accepted 'full responsibility' for the incident in which missiles downed the two aircraft and pledged a 'thorough investigation.'NEWLN: (with additional reports from Sid Balman and Charles Doe in Washington, Denholm Barnetson in Paris, Seva Ulman in Ankara, Ralph Joseph in Athens and Dalal Saoud in Beirut)