BAGHDAD, July 26: Militants downed an Iraqi army helicopter on Thursday in clashes that have killed at least 19 people including 11 policemen, a regional official said, in what appeared to be part of an Al Qaeda surge to retake one of its former strongholds.    

The fighting around the town of Hadid, about 10 kms north of the Diyala provincial capital of Baqouba, follows a warning last weekend from Al Qaeda's leader in Iraq to push back into areas the group was driven out of by the US military after sectarian fighting peaked in 2007.

A day after Al Qaeda issued the threat, shootings and bombings killed 115 people in Iraq's deadliest day in more than two years — an assault for which the terror group claimed responsibility.

Diyala provincial spokesman Salih Ebressim Khalil said militants opened fire on Thursday on the Iraqi army helicopter, killing one soldier, wounding another and forcing the aircraft to make an emergency landing. The rest of the crew was unharmed.

The helicopter was called in to provide surveillance for security forces battling militants since an attack late Tuesday on a security checkpoint in a rural area near Hadid, some 70kmss northeast of Baghdad. Despite police efforts to seal off the area, gunbattles raged overnight Wednesday, killing 11 policemen, Khalil said.

According to provincial police and health officials, seven militants also were killed in the clashes and eight were arrested. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release information.—AP

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