31 US special operations troops killed as helicopter is shot down
KABUL // A military helicopter was shot down in eastern Afghanistan, killing 31 US special operation troops, most of them from the same Navy Seals unit that killed the Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, along with seven Afghan commandos. It was the deadliest incident for American forces in the decade-long war.
US officials said last night they believed none of the Navy Seals who died in the crash had participated in the bin Laden raid.
The Taliban claimed they downed the helicopter with rocket fire while it was taking part in a raid on a house where insurgents were gathered in the province of Wardak late on Friday.
A US administration official in Washington said the craft was apparently shot down by insurgents. Nato confirmed the overnight crash took place and that there "was enemy activity in the area". But it said it was still investigating the cause.
One current and one former US official said the dead included more than 20 Navy Seals from Seal Team Six, the unit that carried out the raid in Pakistan in May in which bin Laden was killed.
They were being flown by a crew of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
Barack Obama, the US president, mourned the deaths of the troops, and said that the crash served as a reminder of the "extraordinary sacrifices" being made by the US military and its families.
He said he also mourned "the Afghans who died alongside our troops".
The death toll surpasses the worst single day loss of life for the US-led coalition in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001 - the June 28, 2005 downing of a military helicopter in Kunar province.
In that attack, 16 Navy Seals and Army special operations troops were killed when their craft was shot down on a mission to rescue four Seals under attack by the Taliban.
With its steep mountain ranges providing shelter for militants armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers, eastern Afghanistan is hazardous terrain for military aircraft.
Slow-moving air transport carriers such as the CH-47 Chinook are particularly vulnerable, often forced to ease their way through sheer valleys where insurgents can achieve more level lines of fire from mountainsides. The helicopter was a twin-rotor Chinook, said an official at Nato headquarters in Brussels.
The official said he was receiving his information from an Afghan officer in Kabul.
The crash took place in the Sayd Abad district of Wardak province, a region known for its strong Taliban presence. The Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said Taliban fighters downed the helicopter during a "heavy raid" in Sayd Abad.
He said Nato attacked a house in Sayd Abad where insurgent fighters were gathering on Friday night. During the battle, the fighters shot down the helicopter. He said eight insurgents were killed in the fight.
There have been at least 17 coalition and Afghan aircraft crashes in Afghanistan this year. Most were attributed to pilot errors, weather conditions or mechanical failures. However, the coalition has confirmed that at least one CH-47F Chinook helicopter was hit by a rocket propelled grenade on July 25, injuring two coalition crew members.
Meanwhile, in the southern Helmand province, an Afghan government official said yesterday that Nato troops attacked a house and inadvertently killed eight members of a family, including women and children.
Nato said that Taliban fighters fired rocket propelled grenades and small arms at coalition troops during a patrol on Friday in the Nad Ali district.
"Coalition forces responded with small arms fire and as the incident continued, an air strike was employed against the insurgent position," a Nato spokesman said.
With the casualties from the helicopter crash, the deaths bring to 365 the number of coalition troops killed this year in Afghanistan and 42 this month.
* Associated Press
Published: August 7, 2011 04:00 AM