Sixteen Colombian police officers have died when their Black Hawk helicopter 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 after the second deadly air accident affecting the US-trained military in less than a week.

The authorities attributed the crash to bad weather. But the location, in a dense jungle near the Gulf of Uraba dominated by drug traffickers and also a refuge for leftist rebels, immediately fuelled speculation that the helicopter may have been fired on.

Colombia's biggest newspaper, El Tiempo, posted on its website an audio recording it said was a cockpit recording from an aircraft that was accompanying the crashed helicopter.

In the recording, an unidentified person remarks that the downed aircraft appeared to have been shot at from the ground and possibly was hit by a home-made mortar shell often used by rebels.

While not ruling out the possibility of an attack, defence minister Luis Carlos Villegas said two other helicopters participating in the mission would have detected any gunfire and did not observe any.