FALLUJAH, Iraq - A U.S. Black Hawk medivac helicopter crashed Thursday near this stronghold of the anti-American insurgency, killing all nine soldiers aboard, the U.S. military said. A witness said the helicopter, which bore red crosses, was hit in the tail by a rocket.
Also Thursday, about 80 prisoners were released from Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison, but they were not the detainees that U.S. authorities had promised would be freed under a special amnesty.
At Baghdad International Airport, meanwhile, an Air Force C-5 transport plane with 63 passengers and crew aboard made an emergency landing, and a senior official at the Pentagon said the plane was hit by hostile fire.
The military also said a U.S. soldier died Wednesday of injuries suffered in a mortar attack that wounded 33 other troops and a civilian west of Baghdad.
The deaths brought to at least 495 the number of Americans killed in Iraq from hostile and non-hostile causes since the start of the war in March, according to the U.S. Central Command and the Department of Defense.
In Washington, the Bush administration expressed its condolences. "The president is saddened anytime we lose men and women in the military," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. "Our thoughts and prayers are always with the families and loved ones of those who lose their lives sacrificing to make the world a better place."
There were no survivors among the nine American soldiers aboard the helicopter that crashed about four miles south of Fallujah, the 82nd Airborne Division said.
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt initially said the aircraft crashed while making an "emergency landing" about 2:20 p.m., adding that the cause was unknown.
Mohammed Ahmed al-Jamali, a farmer who lives close to the crash site, said he heard the whoosh of a rocket, saw it hit the helicopter in the tail and watched the chopper crash in flames.
Al-Jamali, 27, said he rushed to the scene but found all aboard dead.
"I was in the farm, I heard the sound, looked up and I saw the rocket hit. It hit it in the tail," al-Jamali said.
He said there were two helicopters in the air, both with the distinctive red crosses of medical evacuation craft, and that the second one was hit.
The helicopter was a medical evacuation aircraft but it was unclear if it was carrying patients, a military official said on condition of anonymity.
Student Waleed Kurdi, 23, said he heard "a loud explosion and I saw the fire in the air." He said the aircraft exploded in two before it hit the ground.
American troops arrived about an hour later, while a helicopter patrolled above, al-Jamali said.
Fallujah, west of Baghdad, is a flash point of the resistance against the U.S. occupation where rebels previously have shot down U.S. helicopters.
In the incident at Baghdad airport, the Air Force said the transport plane landed safely after declaring an in-flight emergency because of "excessive engine vibrations" in the No. 4 engine. It made no mention of hostile fire, but the defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because details were classified secret, said the engine was hit by hostile fire.
It was not immediately clear what type of weapon was used. The plane had just taken off from their airport when the incident happened. No injuries were reported.
A U.S. helicopter was shot down Jan. 2 in the Fallujah area, killing one soldier, and military officials said it almost certainly was shot down by rebels.
In the deadliest single attack on U.S. forces since the Iraq invasion began in March, 17 soldiers were killed Nov. 15 when two Black Hawk helicopters collided above Mosul in what the military called a likely grenade attack.
On Nov. 2, a Chinook helicopter was shot down near Fallujah, killing 16 American soldiers and injuring 26. The military believes a SA-7 shoulder-fired missile slammed into one of the chopper's rear-mounted engines.
Wednesday's mortar attack occurred at Logistical Base Seitz about 12 miles west of Baghdad in the tense "Sunni Triangle" that is home to hard-line supporters of ousted leader Saddam Hussein.
The mortars hit "a living area where they have their sleeping quarters," a military spokesman said.
Seven of the wounded were treated and returned to duty and the others were hospitalized at the base, the military said.
Also Thursday, an attack was foiled on Baghdad's police headquarters by chasing away men preparing to launch rockets near a soccer stadium, according to Maj. Roger Hedgepeth of the 18th Military Police Brigade. Authorities confiscated the rockets.
At Abu Ghraib, hundreds of people waited in frustration for hours, hoping relatives would be among the first detainees that coalition officials said would be freed in what U.S. officials portrayed as a goodwill gesture.
U.S. guards said they had no orders to release anyone, and an Iraqi lawyer, Mohammed al-Tamimi, expressed doubt anyone would be freed Thursday from Abu Ghraib, where Saddam's regime tortured and murdered political opponents.
There was more confusion when three truckloads of prisoners were driven out of the prison and those waiting rushed out into the street after them, stopping traffic.
But an official said it was a routine release of about 80 prisoners that had nothing to do with the amnesty announced Wednesday by U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer.
"This has nothing to do with Bremer's announcement. These are the ones who are routinely released every week," said Lt. Col. Roy Shere, a spokesman for the 800th Military Police Brigade that operates prisons in Iraq.
Bremer had said 506 of some 12,800 detainees would be released and that the first 100 would be freed Thursday from Abu Ghraib.
The rest were expected to be freed from camps all over the country in the coming weeks.
Bremer said that before they are released, the prisoners must first renounce violence and have a community or tribal leader accept responsibility for their conduct.
U.S. and coalition troops have rounded up thousands of people suspected of attacks or of funding the anti-American insurgency in Iraq.
Relatives at the prison said people were being arrested unjustly and there were dozens of tales of men detained because they were near the scene of an attack.
Coalition officials said those to be released were low-level "associates" of insurgents who had not been directly involved in any attacks.
The release of detainees has been a top demand of the country's community and tribal leaders, as well as human rights advocates.