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Iraqi Kurdish officials say PKK militants killed in chopper crash near Turkey border

No one has yet claimed any connection to a helicopter that crashed in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region Wednesday night, killing seven people.
An AS332 Super Puma military helicopter flies during a graduation ceremony for Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga officers in Arbil, the capital of Iraq's northern autonomous Kurdish region, on June 21, 2021.

US officials have denied any connection to a mysterious helicopter crash that killed seven people in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region on Wednesday night, well-informed sources told Al-Monitor. All seven passengers, including five alleged members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), died in the AS350 Eurocopter that crashed in the district of Chamanke in Dohuk province, the Iraqi Kurdish-run counterterrorism agency said on Thursday.  

The sources briefing Al-Monitor said an investigation was continuing and that there had been two helicopters at the scene. One crashed and the other flew to neighboring Syria into the Kurdish-governed zone, the sources said.

The counterterrorism agency said Iraq's government, the US-led coalition and Turkey had been contacted by the Iraqi Kurdish regional government about the crash, but each denied the helicopter was theirs, the statement added.

The Associated Press reported that PKK spokesperson Zagros Hiwa said the group does not own any helicopters. Ziwa said the crashed chopper may have belonged to the US-led coalition and may have been carrying members of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG forms the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is the United States’ top ally in the fight against the Islamic State. SDF and members of its civilian arm frequently travel to and from Iraq in coalition aircraft. One of the victims is thought to have been a senior counterterrorism official in the Syrian Kurdish administration who went by the code name "Abdo." Al-Monitor was unable to independently confirm that claim.

A regional intelligence source speaking not for attribution to Al-Monitor said that the helicopter was carrying six YPG personnel and two pilots, who all perished. The source maintained that the aircraft was flying from Hasakah in Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria to PUK-controlled Sulaymaniyah in Iraq. "They were flying very very low to avoid Turkish radars. Weather conditions have been very poor for the past three days with lots of rain. That is probably why, due to poor visibility, that the accident occurred," the source, speaking exclusively to Al-Monitor, said. 

However, Iraqi Kurdish officials insist five of the victims were positively identified as PKK militants. 

Coalition officials have denied ownership of the helicopters and links to those on board, according to the sources briefing Al-Monitor. The US military does not operate AS350 Eurocopters. Neither Iran nor Turkey has them in their air force inventories. US Central Command did not respond to Al-Monitor’s request for comment.

At least three sources claimed that the helicopter belonged to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the second-largest party in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq that has cordial ties with Iran, the YPG and the PKK. The sources said the coalition command would have been notified of the helicopter's flight paths for deconfliction purposes.

The sources said the helicopters were provided to the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq for counterterrorism operations. PUK and SDF officials did not respond to Al-Monitor’s request for comment.

Ownership of the helicopter can be easily verified from their serial numbers, the sources briefing Al-Monitor said.

Should the claims about the PUK prove accurate, it will likely spark a harsh reaction from Ankara. Turkey kept its airspace sealed to flights into the PUK's stronghold of Sulaimaniyah after three senior members of the Turkish intelligence agency MIT were kidnapped in territory under its control in 2017. The ban proved hugely costly to the PUK and was only eased in January 2019.  

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