- Associated Press - Monday, June 21, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A military helicopter crashed during an early morning operation in southern Afghanistan on Monday, killing three Australian commandoes and an American service member, officials said.

Two other international troops were killed Sunday in separate bombings in the south, NATO announced without specifying nationalities. One of them was an American, according to a U.S. spokesman Col. Wayne Shanks.

The Taliban claimed they had shot down the helicopter, but NATO said there were no indications of enemy involvement.

The Australian government said three of the dead were Australians, and U.S. Lt. Col. Joseph T. Breasseale said the fourth service member killed was American.

Australian Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston said seven other Australian soldiers were wounded, two of them badly.

“This is a tragic day for Australia, and for the Australian defense force,” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said in a statement to Parliament. “We know our mission in Afghanistan is hard, but this mission is critical for our common security.”

There were 15 people aboard the helicopter, 10 of them Australians, according to Australian Defense Minister John Faulkner.

Australia has some 1,500 troops in Afghanistan, most of them in Uruzgan province. Monday’s deaths take Australia’s military death toll in Afghanistan to 16.

The crash comes in a particularly deadly month for NATO forces. With the most recent deaths, at least 59 international troops, including 36 Americans, have died so far in June. That puts June among the deadliest months for international forces in the nearly nine-year war. The deadliest month so far for the military alliance was July 2009 when 75 troops, including 44 Americans, were killed.

The rising death toll underscores the precarious situation for Afghanistan’s international allies as violence has ramped up this summer.

The United Nations plans to pull some of its approximately 1,000 foreign staffers from the country in the next three months, according to a U.N. report issued last week. The world body has been facing recruitment and housing problems since it tightened security for staffers in the wake of an attack on a residential hotel in Kabul in October where U.N. election staffers were staying. Five U.N. employees died in the attack.

The goal, according to the report, is to reduce the number of U.N. staff in Afghanistan as much as possible without compromising the effectiveness of the mission.

Dan McNorton, a U.N. spokesman in Afghanistan, said that only support staff would be relocated. He would not give a figure on how many people will be moved, saying only that it was “a few” or “a small number.”

The helicopter crashed before dawn in southern Kandahar province, and the operation it had been part of was still ongoing, Houston said.

Other coalition helicopters that were part of the same push landed near the downed aircraft and airlifted out the wounded, he said. More details on the operation were not given.

Afghan officials in Kandahar said the crash occurred in the Shah Wali Kot in the north part of the province, scene of heavy fighting last week involving Australian special forces. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to release information to media.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi told news organizations that insurgents shot the helicopter down with a rocket, a claim disputed by NATO and Australian officials.

A businessman in Shah Wali Kot, Zaheerullah Khan, told the Associated Press that there had been heavy fighting in the area for the last three days.

“Most of the roads are closed and they carry out operations at night,” he said. “Every night you can hear the fighting.”

NATO has launched a major operation to secure the biggest southern city, Kandahar, capital of the province where the Taliban were first organized in the 1990s.

Elsewhere, a spokesman for the Wardak provincial police, Wakil Sherzai, said the Taliban beheaded the acting chief of the province’s district of Sayyed Abad. Gunmen seized the man at his home four days ago and his body was found Monday.

Two Afghan policemen were killed and two were wounded Monday by a roadside bomb in the Nad Ali district of Helmand province, the Interior Ministry said.

Also Monday, the anti-graft commission reported that President Hamid Karzai earns 24,000 Afghanis per month, or about $527, a month. He has 15,300 euros, or about $18,500, in a German bank but owns no land. His wife has jewelry worth more than $10,000.

The High Office for Oversight and the Anti-Corruption Commission plan to release financial disclosure information on at least 2,000 top officials as part of an effort to combat corruption in the country.

Mohammad Yasin Osmani, head of the commission, said Karzai’s financial information was released first and those of other figures would be announced later.

Associated Press writer Mirwais Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.

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