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US General: Copter Crew Presumed Dead

February 24, 2002

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ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AP) _ All 10 U.S. servicemen aboard a military helicopter that crashed two days ago in the southern Philippines are believed to be dead, an American general said Sunday.

``We have determined that there is no chance to find survivors,″ said Brig. Gen. Donald Wurster, head of a U.S. military contingent involved in a counterterrorism exercise in the southern Philippines.

He said the rescue effort had shifted to a recovery mission in the crash site in the Bohol Sea off Negros island.

Officials had held out hope Saturday of a ``miracle″ because the eight-man crew from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and two Air Force para-rescuers all were trained in water survival. The MH-47E Chinook went down before dawn Friday after ferrying U.S. special forces and supplies from the southern Philippine city of Zamboanga to nearby Basilan island.

The chopper was one of two returning to an air base on Mactan islet. Witnesses reported it was on fire as it fell and exploded when it hit the water.

A 600-strong U.S. military force arrived last month for a counterterrorism training exercise aimed at helping the Philippine military wipe out the Muslim extremist Abu Sayyaf group, which has been linked in the past to the al-Qaida terror network.

The Abu Sayyaf has been holding an American missionary couple and a Filipino nurse for nearly nine months in the dense jungles of Basilan, the last of nearly 100 hostages snatched since last May.

A special team of U.S. military investigators has been dispatched to find out what caused the crash. With Philippine officials ruling out hostile fire, speculation has focused on mechanical failure.

The search had extended Saturday to several miles in every direction from the crash site, two miles southwest of Apo island, a marine reserve renowned for diving.

By late Saturday, the search had yielded a rotor, a fuse box, the fuselage, a pilot’s helmet, a seat and the landing gear. The task ahead is increasingly difficult as powerful currents and tides can shift wreckage for miles overnight.

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