WASHINGTON — A large U.S. military helicopter crashed Tuesday afternoon while carrying up to 20 American troops to reinforce a counter-terrorism mission in eastern Afghanistan, U.S. officials confirmed. The fate of those on board was not immediately known, and the area of the crash was rugged and hilly.
Afghan officials said the Chinook CH-47 helicopter was hit by a rocket, and a purported spokesman for the Islamic Taliban militia claimed responsibility for the attack. But a U.S. military statement said it was not known what caused the crash in Kunar province near the Pakistan border.
The incident, the first reported shooting down of an American military aircraft in Afghanistan since the Taliban militia was driven from power in late 2001, underscored the continued danger to U.S. and Afghan troops from revived anti-government armed groups, especially the Taliban.
Fighting and violent attacks have escalated sharply in the past three months, with repeated armed clashes between U.S. and Afghan forces and enemy fighters in the eastern regions of the country close to Pakistan. Afghan and U.S. officials have reported killing at least 240 suspected enemy fighters since March, with some Afghan officials putting the number at more than 400.
U.S. officials have confirmed that 29 U.S. troops have died in the same period, as well as 43 Afghan police and soldiers and 125 civilians. Before Tuesday’s crash, a total of 195 American forces had been killed in Afghanistan since 2001.
There are currently about 19,000 U.S. troops stationed in the country, mostly engaged in hunting down and killing Taliban and al Qaeda forces. There are also about 10,000 troops from other foreign countries, including a U.N. peacekeeping force in the capital, Kabul.
In Washington, a Pentagon official who asked not to be identified said preliminary reports indicated that the twin-rotor CH-47 helicopter, which can hold 3 crewmembers and 33 passengers, was carrying 15 to 20 American troops.
Tuesday’s incident was the second crash of a Chinook in Afghanistan in the last three months, but the first was an accident. On April 6, a Chinook went down in a dust storm southwest of Kabul while on a routine mission, killing 18 people, including 16 military personnel, the deadliest military air accident since Washington first deployed troops to the country in 2001.
At least 14 other U.S. soldiers have been killed in increased attacks and clashes with Taliban fighters since March. The assaults appear to be largely aimed at derailing parliamentary elections scheduled for Sept. 18, the next big step in Afghanistan’s difficult path to democratic rule and political stability. A presidential election was held with minimal violence October 9.
A spokesman for the Afghan government, Jawed Ludin, vowed the elections would be held on schedule despite the escalating violence. He said the challenges from anti-government militias are “very feeble” when compared with the increasing capability of Afghan forces, the help from the international community and “the will of the Afghan people.”
Asadullah Wafa, the governor of Kunar province, said the Chinook was hit by a rocket in Wotapoor district, about five miles from the provincial capital, Asadabad. “But I don’t know if it crashed there or somewhere else,” he said.
The helicopter was transporting troops into an area in support of U.S. forces, the U.S. military said in a statement.
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