US helicopter with 17 on board probably shot down in Afghanistan
A US helicopter which crashed in Afghanistan with 17 service members on board was probably shot down, the military said, in what is believed to be the first such incident since the fall of the Taliban.
Rescuers were struggling to reach the Chinook, which came down during an anti-Al-Qaeda mission in the mountainous eastern province of Kunar Tuesday, but the fate of those travelling in the chopper was not known, officials said Wednesday.
"Initial reports indicate the crash may have been caused by hostile fire. The status of the service members is unknown at this time," a US military statement said Wednesday.
US warplanes were alternating patrols above the site to avoid any further fire from the ground, while American-led and Afghan troops were blocking any enemy movement nearby, the US military said.
The rugged landscape deep in the scenic Hindu Kush mountain range was hampering the effort to find potential survivors, US military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jerry O'Hara said.
"The terrain is a challenge and every challenge we work around," O'Hara told AFP.
The crash, which would also be the deadliest single attack on US forces in Afghanistan if hostile fire is confirmed as the cause, comes amid fears that the war-shattered country is degenerating into Iraq-style chaos.
More than 500 people, most of them militants, have died since the Taliban launched a major offensive at the beginning of the year ahead of key elections in September.
"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 and deny them influence in Kunar province," the US military statement added.
"Operation Red Wing continues in Kunar."
A Taliban spokesman said the helicopter was in the area after rebels seized and executed seven Afghans "working as spies for the Americans with satellite phones and maps" and trying to track down militants.
"Among the seven, one of them managed to get the message out to the Americans, who came with helicopters," Taliban spokesman Mullah Abdul Latif Hakimi told AFP by satellite phone from an undisclosed location.
He said Taliban rebels shot down the Chinook near a village called Shurak and that all on board were killed. There was no way of independently confirming his account and some of his previous claims have proved to be untrue.
Asadullah Wafa, the governor of restive Kunar province, confirmed that a rocket was fired from the mountains in Watakur district. "We don't know the rocket hit the chopper but we do know that a rocket was fired at it," he said.
A Chinook carrying 18 people, three of them civilians, went down in an accident in bad weather April killing all on board. It was the worst air crash suffered by the United States in Afghanistan.
US forces flying missions above Afghanistan's difficult, rugged terrain have suffered nine helicopter crashes since the end of 2001, including Tuesday's, but this is the first attributed to enemy fire.
Seven previous crashes before the April accident had claimed 21 lives.
During a major operation against Taliban hideouts in southern Afghanistan last week two Chinooks were hit by small arms fire. One had to make an emergency landing for repairs but then went on with its mission, the US said.
Scores of militants died in the joint Afghan and US offensive, one of the bloodiest in the last three years. Most were killed when US aircraft pounded militant positions in an 11-hour bombardment.
The bloodshed continued across Afghanistan Tuesday. Four policemen died when suspected Taliban set off a landmine a few kilometres (miles) from the site of the chopper crash. It was unclear if the two incidents were linked.
Separately in the southcentral province of Uruzgan Taliban militants attacked a government checkpoint, killing a civilian, injuring three policemen and losing one of their own fighters, officials said.
In neighbouring Helmand, another insurgency-hit region, police acting on a tip-off detained a local Taliban commander carrying weapons and bombs.