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Service held for Americans killed in Philippines chopper crash

Updated:

MACTAN AIR BASE, Philippines (AP) _ More than 300 American soldiers gathered in an airplane hangar Tuesday to honor 10 colleagues killed in a helicopter crash during anti-terrorism exercises last week.

The 10 dead _ an eight-man Army crew from Fort Campbell, Ky., and two Air Force para-rescuers based in Japan _ were part of a 660-member American force training Philippine soldiers to fight Muslim extremist guerrillas.

Their helicopter crashed before dawn Friday off Negros island in the southern Philippines after ferrying U.S. special forces and supplies from Zamboanga city to nearby Basilan island. The bodies of three crew members were recovered soon afterward; the other seven bodies remain missing.

Basilan island is where the Abu Sayyaf group, linked in the past to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network, has been holding Wichita, Kan., missionaries Gracia and Martin Burnham and a Filipino nurse hostage for nine months.

``They died standing for a noble cause of keeping the world free of people who do not believe in the rights of other peoples to live in harmony and freedom,'' said Philippine chief of staff Gen. Diomedio Villanueva, who led the 200 Philippine soldiers during the 15-minute memorial service.

``They are indeed heroes.''

Outside, about 150 U.S. soldiers, many with tears in their eyes, stood in formation under a setting sun with 10 gaps in their ranks and a nearly identical helicopter to the one that crashed sitting behind them.

The drill leader shouted out roll call, repeating the names of each casualty three times before the units closed the gaps.

Villanueva posthumously awarded the 10 men with the Bronze Star, the Philippines' highest peacetime military award.

``Their deaths remind us that the fight against the enemies of peace and security comes at a cost,'' he said while giving the medals to the victims' colleagues.

Another memorial service was scheduled for later Tuesday at Fort Campbell.

An Army team is investigating the crash. Witnesses said the MH-47E Chinook was burning before it exploded on impact with the water. Both U.S. and Philippine officials have ruled out hostile fire.

The crash occurred in deep water with swift currents, complicating recovery efforts. U.S. officials said they plan to salvage as much of the wreckage as possible.

The chopper was one of three assigned to the exercises. Two Black Hawk helicopters were unloaded from a C-17 U.S. cargo plane in Zamboanga on Tuesday.

Also, reports of new kidnapping groups emerging in the Philippines prompted President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to release $4 million to buy better guns and surveillance gear for five special anti-kidnapping task forces, officials said Tuesday.

Those groups reportedly include ones established by former members of the New People's Army, the armed wing of the local communist party, and the Alex Boncayao Brigade, a communist assassination squad that killed scores of police and politicians in Manila in the 1980s.
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