- Associated Press - Monday, August 8, 2011

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The U.S.-led coalition said Monday that the 30 U.S. troops and seven Afghan soldiers who died in a weekend helicopter crash in eastern Afghanistan were on a mission targeting a Taliban leader.

NATO said in a statement that an insurgent with a rocket-propelled grenade reportedly fired on the chopper, which was transporting the U.S. and Afghan troops to the scene of an ongoing fight between coalition forces and insurgents.

NATO said the operation began as a search for a Taliban leader responsible for insurgent operations in the Tangi Valley of Wardak province. Coalition ground forces saw several insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and AK-47s and called for assistance, NATO said, and the helicopter crashed as it was arriving to assist.

On Monday, international military forces worked to recover every last piece of the crashed Chinook helicopter, NATO said.

German Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, told reporters that troops had secured the crash site in a rugged area of eastern Wardak province and nobody was being allowed in or out of the area while the investigation was ongoing.

The crash was deadliest single loss for U.S. forces in the decade-long war.

Another NATO helicopter made a hard landing Monday in eastern Paktia province, NATO said. It did not report any casualties and said the cause of the hard landing was under investigation. The coalition said no enemy activity was in the area at the time.

The helicopter was a CH-47 of the same type that crashed Saturday. It was flying in to pick up special operations troops but apparently suffered a mechanical failure and crash landed, an officer in the war zone said. He could not be named because he was not authorized to comment publicly. The crew was rescued by the troops.

The fatal crash on Saturday highlights the risks confronting the U.S.-led coalition as it looks to rely more on special operations forces while reducing the overall number of troops in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

A current and a former U.S. official said the Americans included 22 SEALs, three Air Force members, and a dog handler and his dog. The two spoke on condition of anonymity because military officials still were notifying the families of the dead.

All but two of the SEALs were from SEAL Team 6, the unit that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last May, officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information. None of the SEALs killed in the crash took part in the bin Laden mission.

The Rangers, special operations forces who work regularly with the SEALs, secured the crash site in the Tangi Joy Zarin area of Wardak province, about 60 miles southwest of Kabul, one of the officials said.

Many of the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was still ongoing.

Eight Taliban fighters also were killed in the battle, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement.

Gen. Jacobson said that despite the tragedy, the coalition was undeterred in its mission.

“The incident, as tragic as it was in its magnitude, will have no influence on the conduct of operations. It was a tragic day. It was a tragic loss,” Gen. Jacobson said. “The campaign is going to continue. We will continue to relentlessly pursue the enemy in the fight that we are taking to them.”

SEALs, Rangers and other special operations troops are expected to be the vanguard of the American military effort in Afghanistan as international military forces start pulling out, handing over control to the Afghan forces they have spent billions of dollars arming and training.

Special operations troops are expected to remain in the country after the troop withdrawal for counterterrorism missions and advisory support. Just how many will remain has not yet been negotiated with the Afghan government, but the United States is considering from 5,000 to 20,000, far fewer than the 100,000 U.S. troops there now.

Special forces frequently are used to target insurgent commanders as part of an effort to force the Taliban’s leadership to agree to a negotiated peace. The operations, mostly night raids, often are carried out by Afghan and coalition special operations forces.

Night raids have drawn criticism from human rights activists and have infuriated Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who says they anger and alienate the Afghan population.

Associated Press writers Kimberly Dozier in Washington and Deb Riechmann in Kabul contributed to this article.

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