ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia -- A Russian military helicopter heading to a battle with separatist rebels crashed in Chechnya yesterday, killing all 18 people aboard, emergency officials said.
There were conflicting reports about whether the craft was shot down, but the crash en route to a military operation underlined the persistence of Chechnya's insurgency years after the most recent major fighting.
It was the largest single-day loss of life reported by the Russian military in Chechnya in at least two years.
The Mi-8 helicopter went down while flying to southern Chechnya as part of an operation against militants, an official at the regional branch of the Emergency Situations Ministry said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give his name to the media.
The operation was in the Shatoi region, deep in the rugged Caucasus Mountains, where small rebel bands take shelter, eluding Russian troops in the thick forests and deep ravines.
The emergency official said preliminary indications were that the helicopter -- carrying 15 soldiers and a crew of three -- was shot down, but a ministry duty officer in the region later called the crash an accident, saying a rotor blade had struck something during an attempt to land.
President Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechnya, whose pro-Kremlin administration has increased control over the region but been unable to wipe out the rebels, gave a third version of the crash.
"The cause of the catastrophe, according to information from the scene, was a technical failure," he was quoted as saying by the RIA-Novosti news agency.
Russian forces have fought two wars against separatist rebels in Chechnya since 1994.