ARLINGTON, Va. — Two U.S. pilots from a Apache Longbow helicopter were reported missing in action Monday after fighting against Iraqi Republican Guard units in central Iraq, said Army Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. Central Command.

Franks dispelled Iraqi government claims that they had downed two helicopters. He could not provide information on the fate of the two missing pilots.

The Apache was one of “30 or 40 attack helicopters that moved onto targets,” of Saddam Hussein’s elite army, Franks said during a news briefing from the U.S. Central Command’s forward headquarters at Camp As Sayliyah, Qatar.

Franks also dismissed Iraqi claims that farmers shot down the helicopter.

“One attack helicopter was downed. All others returned safely,” said Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, CENTCOM’s deputy director of operations. In spite of the downed aircraft, “we know they were very effective in their mission,” Franks said.

Iraqi state television showed pictures of one helicopter in a grassy field. Men in Arab headdresses holding Kalashnikovs automatic rifles danced around the aircraft.

“A small number of peasants shot down two Apaches,” Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf said. “Perhaps we will show pictures of the pilots.”

Iraqi state television also showed pictures of two helmets apparently belonging to members of the helicopter’s crew, as well as documents and other papers lying on the ground.

During a briefing at Camp As Sayliyah in Qatar, Franks acknowledged one helicopter did not return from its mission in Iraq.

“We have a two-man crew missing,” he said, adding that their fate was “uncertain.”

Earlier, Air Force Master Sgt. Grant Windsor at the Pentagon confirmed one Apache was missing but said he had no information on the pilots. He said the Defense Department was evaluating the tape shown on Iraqi TV.

The helicopter shown on television Monday did not appear to be damaged, suggesting it had been forced to land by mechanical problems rather than ground fire.

The report of the downed helicopters and new prisoners of war came only one day after al-Jazeera showed video images of five American prisoners of war captured in fighting near the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah.

“Yesterday was a black day and the black days will increase,” Sahhaf said.

Even so, Sahhaf said the POWs would be treated according to the Geneva Conventions. He rejected accusations that Iraq had violated such accords by allowing Iraqi television to film them and ask questions.

Referring to televised video images of Iraqi prisoners of war, Sahhaf claimed the men were actually civilians taken away at gunpoint by U.S. forces.

“Is no one supposed to tell them they acted inappropriately?” he asked. “These hypocrites! We tell them we abide by Geneva Conventions.”

He accused allied forces of “crying tears of crocodiles,” for attacking Iraq and finding the consequences unpleasant.

Franks declined to talk specifically about reports that U.S. troops might have found a chemical manufacturing plant on their way to Baghdad.

“It would not surprise me if there were chemicals in the plant, and it would not surprise me if there weren’t,” he said. “We probably have received several handfuls of bits of information over the last three or four days about the potential of weapons of mass destruction locations, some are locations in areas we have control over, some we have not yet gone into.”

About 20 U.S. soldiers and Marines have been killed in the first five days of fighting, and roughly 16 more have died in accidents and aircraft crashes. Twelve soldiers were reported missing Sunday after an Army supply convoy that might have lost its way was ambushed in southern Iraq.

On Sunday, Al Jazeera aired footage of what appeared to be dead and live American soldier prisoners. Those killed appeared to have bullet holes in their foreheads.

The Pentagon on Sunday sent out a plea to media outlets asking they refrain from publishing or broadcasting images that identify the U.S. troops.

Army officials had yet to make contact with all of the next of kin as of Monday morning EST, a Pentagon spokesman said.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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