Ten British military personnel are missing and presumed dead following the crash of a military transport plane north of Baghdad on Iraq's election day, Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said Monday.
If the deaths are confirmed, it would be the biggest single loss of British lives since the start of the Iraq war. The previous highest number was eight.
The British government said it is investigating the cause of the Hercules crash Sunday, and couldn't comment on an Iraqi militant group's claim that it shot down the aircraft. The Ansar al-Islam group said in a statement posted Sunday on an Islamic Web site that its fighters tracked the aircraft, "which was flying at a low altitude, and fired an anti-tank missile at it."
Capt. David Orwin, a British military spokesman in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, told Britain's Press Association news agency that the crash site had been secured by U.S. and British forces.
A senior U.S. military officer in Iraq said the Royal Air Force Hercules C-130 aircraft, en route from Baghdad to the city of Balad, crashed 25 miles northwest of Baghdad, adding that the plane's wreckage was scattered over a large area. The Ministry of Defense in London said the crash occurred 19 miles northwest of the Iraqi capital at 5:25 p.m. local time.
The U.S. military has an air base at Balad. Ansar al-Islam and other insurgent groups are known to operate in the area, and insurgents have fired at coalition aircraft before. Several thousand surface-to-air missiles disappeared from Iraqi military arsenals after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime and many of them are believed to have fallen into the hands of insurgents.
Britain, America's top ally in the coalition, has 9,000 troops in Iraq, mostly in the south of the country near Basra. British officials haven't said why the Hercules was flying north of Baghdad.
"It is the largest single loss of British service lives since the military action began almost two years ago," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said of the plane crash. "Our hearts go out to the families and comrades of those who were killed and those injured," he told British Broadcasting Corp. radio.
One of the dead was a serviceman with joint British-Australian citizenship, Flight Lt. Paul Pardoel, the Australian government said.
The British military has reported 76 deaths since the start of the Iraq war. Eight British troops died along with four American crew when a U.S. helicopter crashed over Kuwait on March 21, 2003.
Britain's Royal Air Force flies several versions of the American-built C-130 Hercules aircraft, which is used to carry troops, passengers and freight. The older C-130K model has a crew of five or six and carries up to 128 troops. The newer C-130J version has a crew of three and can also carry up to 128 infantry. The RAF has some 60 Hercules aircraft, about half of which are newer planes.
Military expert Air Vice-Marshall Tony Mason said the fact the wreckage was widely scattered indicated the Hercules may have been shot down.
"The first statement said the crash site covered a wide area, which suggests impact in the air rather than the ground," Mason told BBC radio. "My concern is that at the moment it could very well be hostile action."