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In one of the deadliest accidents since Western troops first set up a base at Kandahar Airfield more than seven years ago, a Russian-built Mi-8 helicopter crashed yesterday morning, killing 16 civilians on board and injuring five others.

Shortly before noon Kandahar time yesterday, black smoke could be seen from several kilometres away, rising from one side of the base. Initially, the smoke led some to believe there had been a rocket attack or a fire on the base. However, the International Security Assistance Force confirmed later in the day that a helicopter had crashed.

The helicopter was a civilian aircraft under contract, although ISAF would not say which nation's military had the contract. In addition to the 16 deaths, five people were injured and taken to the base hospital. No Canadian military personnel were among the killed or injured.

"There was no indication of the cause of the accident but insurgent action has been ruled out," ISAF said in a statement. The military force released no further information about the crash or the victims. Journalists were not allowed to interview the injured civilians or see the site of the crash.

Captain Glen Parent, a spokesman for the NATO-led force in Kandahar, said the crash occurred just moments after takeoff, while the aircraft was still inside the base.

ISAF had planned to release some information about the victims, but the large number of dead means it will take much longer to inform all the next of kin.

"That process could take several days, with that number involved," Capt. Parent said.

The Russian news agency Interfax said the Mi-8 was owned by the Russian company Vertikal-T. It doesn't appear any Canadians were on board, although that has not yet been confirmed.

The Soviet-era Mi-8 helicopter is often used to transport people and supplies through war zones. Last summer, Ottawa announced it would be leasing six to eight Mi-8s. The move was a stopgap measure to supplement Canada's air capabilities. However, the Canadian military confirmed last night that the helicopter that crashed was not under a Canadian contract - Canada's Mi-8s at Kandahar Airfield are used to transport supplies, not people.

July has seen a spate of deadly aircraft incidents in Kandahar. Earlier this month, two Canadian soldiers and one British soldier were killed in a helicopter crash in Zabul province, northeast of Kandahar. This week, a civilian helicopter was shot down in Helmand province, killing six people on board and one child on the ground.

The latest plane crash came on Saturday, when a U.S. F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jet crashed in the eastern province of Ghazni. Both crew members on board were killed. It appears that enemy fire was not a factor in the crash.

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