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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Afghan helicopter crash kills 31 US troops

KABUL, Afghanistan— Thirty-one American troops and seven Afghans died in the overnight downing of a U.S. helicopter, President Hamid Karzai's office said Saturday. The Taliban claimed to have shot down the craft.

The deaths represent the largest loss of military lives in a single incident in the course of the nearly 10-year-old war, and are a blow to Western efforts as the United States and its allies begin drawing down forces in Afghanistan in hopes of ending their combat role in the next three years.

NATO's International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, confirmed in a terse statement that a helicopter crash had occurred and acknowledged insurgent activity in the area at the time. A Western military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the twin-rotor Chinook helicopter had apparently been brought down by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Karzai's statement identified the slain Americans as special operations forces. Sensitive to operational secrecy, special forces commanders as a rule are slower than other branches to publicly acknowledge combat casualties, which would account for the military's near-silence on the incident more than 12 hours after it occurred.

The helicopter went down after midnight in the Sayedabad district of Wardak province, west of the capital, Kabul, according to Shahidullah Shahid, a spokesman for the provincial governor. He and other provincial officials said the crash followed a firefight that had left eight insurgents dead.

The NATO force said recovery efforts were under way, and Afghan officials said the crash site had been cordoned off. The statement from Karzai's office reporting the U.S. and Afghan casualties offered condolences to President Obama and the families of the Afghans who died.

Downings of Western helicopters by hostile fire have been relatively rare in the Afghan conflict. Far more military choppers are lost to mechanical problems or bad weather.

The Taliban claimed its fighters had ambushed Western troops after being tipped off to an imminent night raid in the district. The crash site is located in Wardak's Tangi valley, where the insurgents are known to be active.

The Taliban have claimed responsibility, saying their fighters downed the helicopter in a battle with Nato troops, according to the office of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The Islamist group also said eight of its fighters had been killed in the fighting.

The incident is believed to be the biggest single loss of life for US forces in Afghanistan since they began operations in 2001.

Nawaz Haqyar, police chief of Maidan Wardak province, said the helicopter had come down in the province, which is west of the country's capital Kabul.

Karzai said in a statement that he has sent his condolences to US President Barack Obama.

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