BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Sixteen police officers died Tuesday when the Black Hawk helicopter they were traveling in crashed while taking part in a manhunt for the nation's most-wanted drug trafficker.
Two other uniformed personnel were in critical condition and being treated for serious burns.
The location of the crash, in a dense jungle near the Gulf of Uraba dominated by drug traffickers but also a refuge for leftist rebels, fueled speculation that the helicopter had been fired upon.
While not ruling out the possibility of an attack, Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said two other helicopters participating in the mission didn't report any gunfire. He said the most likely hypothesis was that low-lying clouds obstructed the pilots' visibility and the Black Hawk crashed at a high speed into a hillside. The aircraft was destroyed, he said.
Police said the Black Hawk was part of a mission hunting Dairo Otoniel Usaga, leader of Colombia's most violent drug-smuggling gang. Since February, authorities with the support of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration have intensified the manhunt for Otoniel, for whose capture the United States has offered a $5 million reward.
The incident follows the death of 11 air force personnel whose CASA-235 airplane crashed last week near the Caribbean coast in an accident also attributed to bad weather.
Villegas also lashed out against former President Alvaro Uribe, who said on Twitter that he has information that both incidents resulted from some sort of impact on the aircraft.
"Uribe knows that I don't hide information," Villegas said at a news conference in Bogota.
Uribe, a conservative hardliner, is a fierce opponent of the peace talks that the government has held for more than two years with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Any indication that the rebels were behind either crash would likely further weaken already plunging public support for the talks.