- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 2, 2006

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — A British patrol plane crashed yesterday, killing 14 servicemen in the worst loss of life for the NATO-led security force since it took on the mission of taming insurgents in Afghanistan’s volatile south a month ago.

A spokesman for the ousted Taliban movement claimed guerrillas shot the plane down with a Stinger missile, but British Defense Secretary Des Browne said the loss appeared to be “a terrible accident.” The alliance said the plane’s crew had reported a technical problem.

The crash took place as Afghan and foreign troops carried out a big operation near Kandahar, a former Taliban stronghold in a region that has seen a surge of violence. Afghan officials said 13 policemen, 13 insurgents and a civilian had died in clashes across the south since Friday.

Separately, a United Nations report released yesterday in Kabul found that opium cultivation in Afghanistan is spiraling out of control, rising 59 percent this year to produce a record 6,100 tons — nearly a third more than the world’s drug users consume.

Antonio Maria Costa, the U.N. anti-drug chief, called the results “very alarming.” He said the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai had to do much more to root out graft and remove ineffective governors and police chiefs in opium-growing provinces. He accused corrupt administrators of pocketing aid money.

Meanwhile, the British Defense Ministry said the crashed plane was a Nimrod MR2, a long-range aircraft that can carry up to 25 persons and a crew of 13 for reconnaissance and communications missions. The dead included 12 Royal Air Force personnel, a Royal Marine and an army soldier.

Abdul Manan, a witness in Chalaghor, about 12 miles west of Kandahar city, said the plane crashed about 100 yards from his house and pieces of wreckage landed nearby. He reported seeing a fire at the back of the plane before it hit with an explosion that “shook the whole village.”

Afghan and NATO troops are conducting a major offensive in Panjwayi district, where Chalaghor village is, but Mr. Manan said the fighting was six miles from the village. Earlier yesterday, authorities had ordered all traffic off roads in the district, warning that any vehicle “will be targeted” in case it was carrying Taliban militants.

Mr. Manan said troops on helicopters landed around the burning plane wreckage and kept onlookers away. He said he could see American soldiers picking up body parts.

Shortly after the crash, a purported spokesman for the fundamentalist Taliban movement, Abdul Khaliq, claimed responsibility for the crash, but it was impossible to verify the claim. “We used a Stinger missile to shoot down the aircraft,” he said in a phone call to the Associated Press.

Maj. Scott Lundy, a spokesman for the NATO-led force, said that “there was no indication of an enemy attack.”

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