KABUL, Afghanistan – A U.S. Chinook helicopter that crashed in eastern Afghanistan was likely shot down by hostile fire, and the fate of 17 American servicemembers aboard was unclear, the U.S. military said today. The Taliban claimed to have attacked the aircraft.
The troops were on a mission against al Qaeda fighters when the helicopter went down Tuesday in a mountainous region near Asadabad, in Kunar province.
“The helicopter was transporting forces into the area as part of Operation Red Wing, which is part of the enduring fight to defeat al Qaeda militants,” a military statement said. “Initial reports indicate the crash may have been caused by hostile fire. The status of the service members is unknown at this time.”
The military said coalition and Afghan troops “quickly moved into position around the crash to block any enemy movement toward or away from the site” and that coalition support aircraft were overhead.
“This is a tragic event for all of us, and our hearts and prayers go out to the families, loved ones and men still fighting in the area,” said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Greg Champion, deputy commanding general of Combined Joint Task Force-76. “This incident will only further our resolve to defeat the enemies of peace.”
Provincial Gov. Asadullah Wafa told the Associated Press that the Taliban downed the aircraft with a rocket. He gave no other details.
Purported Taliban spokesman Mullah Latif Hakimi telephoned the AP before news of the crash was released and said the rebels shot the helicopter down.
He said the rebels filmed the attack and would release the video to the media. He also claimed that rebels killed seven U.S. soldiers in an attack in the same area, though U.S. spokeswomen Lt. Cindy Moore said no such attack had been made on an American convoy.
Hakimi often calls news organizations to claim responsibility for attacks on behalf of the Taliban. His information has sometimes proven untrue or exaggerated, and his exact tie to the group’s leadership is unclear.
The crash was the second of a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan this year. On April 6, 15 U.S. service members and three American civilians were killed when their chopper went down in a sandstorm while returning to the main U.S. base at Bagram.
The U.S. military has launched operations in several areas along the border with Pakistan. Those offensives target remnants of al Qaeda and the hard-line Taliban movement, as well as foreign fighters using high mountain passes to cross the largely uncontrolled border from Pakistan.
Tuesday’s crash comes after three months of unprecedented fighting that has killed about 465 suspected insurgents, 29 U.S. troops, 43 Afghan police and soldiers, and 125 civilians.
The violence has left much of Afghanistan off-limits to aid workers and has reinforced concerns that the war here is escalating into a conflict on the scale of that in Iraq.
Afghan and U.S. officials have predicted that the situation will deteriorate in the lead-up to legislative elections in September – the next key step toward democracy after a quarter-century of war.
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.”
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