- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 29, 2005

KABUL, Afghanistan — U.S. military officials said yesterday they feared all 17 troops aboard a special operations helicopter were dead after hostile fire downed the craft and it slid into a rugged mountain ravine in eastern Afghanistan.

If those aboard are confirmed killed, the crash will be the deadliest blow yet to American forces in Afghanistan, already grappling with an insurgency that is widening rather than winding down.

The officials said they knew of no communications from the crash site, accessible only by foot.

Stormy weather hampered rescue efforts after the MH-47 helicopter crashed Tuesday while ferrying in reinforcements for troops pursuing al Qaeda militants near the border with Pakistan.

The officials cited reports from the region that the helicopter struck the side of a mountain and slid into a deep ravine, suggesting little hope of survival. They said, however, they could not confirm the deaths, and spoke on the condition of anonymity because rescue operations were still under way.

The loss of the helicopter follows three months of unprecedented fighting that has killed about 465 suspected insurgents, 43 Afghan police and soldiers, 125 civilians, and 29 U.S. troops. Afghan and U.S. officials have predicted the situation will deteriorate before legislative elections are held in September.

The Taliban have stepped up attacks, and there are disturbing signs that foreign fighters — including al Qaeda — might be making a new push to create mayhem.

Even before the crash was announced, purported Taliban spokesman Mullah Latif Hakimi took responsibility and said he had footage of the attack.

U.S. military spokesman Army Col. James Yonts said the helicopter was fired on as it was approaching a landing zone while rushing reinforcements to a battle in an area known to harbor “terrorist organizations.” It flew on, but crashed about a little over a mile away at dusk, he said.

In addition to poor weather, recovery operations were also hampered by the rugged terrain of the remote crash site, reachable only by foot, officials said. The crash occurred in the mountains near Asadabad, in eastern Kunar province.

The downed chopper, a special operations variant of the CH-47 Chinook, was carrying Navy SEALs, one U.S. official said. Another said it was carrying special operations forces but was not sure whether they were SEALs or from another unit.

The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, said the “tragedy … appears to be a shootdown of one of our special operations helicopters.”

“We think it was a rocket-propelled grenade, sir, but not 100 percent sure. And that will come out in time as we’re able to get to the scene and the investigation required,” Gen. Pace told a Senate committee.

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 helicopter went down in a sandstorm while returning to the main U.S. base at Bagram.

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