Taliban claim to down helicopter

PESHAWAR: The Taliban claimed responsibility Saturday for a Pakistani helicopter crash that killed 26 security personnel, as helicopter gunships pounded suspected militant hideouts in the northwest.

The Pakistani military dismissed the Taliban claim, repeating an earlier statement that the crash was caused by a "technical fault".

The helicopter crashed Friday on the border of the rugged semi-autonomous Orakzai and Khyber tribal regions and officials said no one survived.

Helicopters shelled suspected hideouts in Orakzai, said Wajid Ali, spokesman for the paramilitary Frontier Corps.

"Our helicopters targeted militant hideouts in the area," he said.

Orakzai is believed to have been infiltrated by militants loyal to Pakistani Taliban, who earlier claimed responsibility for the crash.

"We shot down the helicopter," a spokesman for Taliban insurgents based in the nearby Darra Adam Khel region told AFP by telephone.

The spokesman, identifying himself as Muhammad, said the helicopter had been shot down in retaliation for the Pakistani military operation in South Waziristan, a stronghold of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

A military spokesman reiterated Saturday that the crash was caused by a "technical fault".

"Taliban militants frequently make false claims," he said.

"All 26 people on board died and the wreckage of the helicopter has been removed," he said, adding an inquiry had been ordered.

On Friday a senior security official said a military MI-17 helicopter had crashed due to a technical fault, killing 26 security personnel on board.

The crash happened 20 kilometres (12 miles) from Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province (NWFP), he said.

Pakistan has been fighting a two-month battle to dislodge militants in three districts of the northwest.

The military has also launched air raids in the tribal belt to prepare for a second front against the Taliban in South Waziristan, a stronghold of feared warlord Baitullah Mehsud.

Fighter jets have been pounding suspected insurgent hideouts in South and North Waziristan, where the military says it is preparing for a full-scale offensive.

Military and government officials have vowed to track down and eliminate the warlord blamed