- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 15, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan | A civilian helicopter ferrying humanitarian aid was shot down Tuesday in a southern Afghan province where fighting with the Taliban is raging, killing all six Ukrainian crew members and a child on the ground, officials said. Two U.S. Marines and an Italian soldier died in the latest clashes.

The transport helicopter crashed in flames in the Sangin district of Helmand province, the center of Afghanistan’s opium poppy cultivation where thousands of Marines are conducting their biggest offensive since the hard-line Islamic movement was ousted from power in 2001.

NATO officials in Kabul said the cause of the crash was under investigation. The civil aviation authority of the former Soviet republic of Moldova said a rocket or a missile struck the Mi-26 helicopter, owned by the Moldovan air charter company Pecotox-Airi.

The Taliban posted a statement on its Web site claiming the helicopter was brought down “by anti-aircraft fire” with 37 British troops aboard. Moldovan and British authorities said no British troops were on the helicopter. Daud Ahmadi, the spokesman for the Helmand governor, said a 6-year-old on the ground was also killed.

The crash occurred about a mile from a British military base, according to Fazel Haq, a senior local official.

The two U.S. Marines were killed Monday in a “hostile incident” in Helmand, according to U.S. military spokeswoman Capt. Elizabeth Mathias. The number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan so far this year is at least 107, compared with 151 in 2008.

One Italian soldier was killed and three were wounded Tuesday when a roadside bomb struck their convoy about 30 miles north of the city of Farah in western Afghanistan, the Italian Defense Ministry announced.

President Obama has ordered 21,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan this year. There are about 57,000 U.S. troops now in the country, and the number is expected to rise to at least 68,000 by the end of 2009.

Mr. Obama said Tuesday that he hopes military operations in Afghanistan can transition to a different phase after the Afghan presidential election, which is set for Aug. 20. Mr. Obama said he is looking for an exit strategy in which the Afghan army, police, courts and government take more responsibility for the country’s security.

To that end, about 4,000 U.S. Marines launched their operation July 2 in Helmand province, hoping to prevent Taliban fighters from disrupting the presidential ballot in the Taliban stronghold.

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