A large U.S. military helicopter crashed Tuesday afternoon while carrying 17 American troops to reinforce a counterterrorism mission in eastern Afghanistan, U.S. officials confirmed. "Initial reports indicate the crash may have been caused by hostile fire," the military said in a statement this morning.
The fate of those on board was not immediately known, and the area of the crash, west of Asadabad, was rugged and hilly. "This is a tragic event for all of us," said Army Brig. Gen. Greg Champion, deputy commanding general of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Afghan officials said the CH-47 Chinook helicopter was hit by a rocket while flying over Konar province, near the Pakistani border. A purported spokesman for the Taliban Islamic militia asserted responsibility for the attack.
U.S. and Afghan forces "quickly moved into position around the crash to block any enemy movement toward or away from the site," the statement today said. "Coalition aircraft remain overhead."
The incident, the first time a U.S. military helicopter in Afghanistan has been reported shot down since Operation Anaconda in early 2002, underscored the continuing danger to U.S. and Afghan troops from armed anti-government groups, especially the Taliban.
Armed clashes have escalated sharply as Afghanistan approaches parliamentary elections in September. Twenty-nine U.S. troops and at least 250 suspected insurgents have been killed in the past three months, as well as 43 Afghan troops and police officers and 125 civilians, according to Afghan and U.S. officials.
Taliban forces have vowed to derail the elections, and U.S. commanders have warned of a likely intensification of attacks by the militia and allied fighters from al Qaeda. U.S. and Afghan forces, in turn, have stepped up patrols in eastern and southern regions near the border with Pakistan in hopes of keeping insurgents on the defensive.
"There's still a lot of fighting in Afghanistan," said a senior U.S. officer. "The American people shouldn't be surprised we're continuing to take casualties."
U.S. military officials said the Chinook was ferrying part of a "quick reaction" team. Such teams are typically made up of Special Operations forces and are used for emergency missions. They said at least 16 U.S. troops were on board the twin-rotor craft, which can carry three crew members and 44 troops.
The Chinook was accompanied by a second helicopter, which was not reported to have been damaged, officers said.
Before Tuesday's crash, a total of 195 U.S. service members had died in Afghanistan since the ouster of the Taliban militia in late 2001.
There are currently about 19,000 U.S. troops stationed in the country, mostly engaged in hunting down and killing Taliban and al Qaeda forces. There are also about 10,000 troops from other countries.
Tuesday's incident was the second crash of a Chinook in Afghanistan in the last three months. On April 6, a Chinook crashed during a dust storm, killing 15 troops and three American civilians in the deadliest military air accident since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Other helicopters have been brought down by bad weather and mechanical failure.
Afghan officials said they were determined to hold successful parliamentary elections on Sept. 18. The vote is the next major step in Afghanistan's difficult path to democratic rule and political stability. A presidential election was held with minimal violence on Oct. 9.
A spokesman for President Hamid Karzai, Jawad Ludin, told reporters Tuesday in Kabul, the capital, that anti-government militias were "very feeble" when compared with the increasing capability of Afghan security forces, the help from the international community and "the will of the Afghan people."
But Jean Arnault, the U.N. special representative for Afghanistan, told the U.N. Security Council on Friday that worsening security conditions had negatively affected election preparations and that military operations were not enough to counteract Taliban efforts to destabilize the country.
Earlier Tuesday, roadside bombings killed five Afghan policemen in Konar province. One bomb exploded on a road near Asadabad, about 120 miles east of Kabul, killing a district police chief and his two sons and wounding seven officers. Several rockets also landed near a U.N.-Afghan election commission office in Asadabad, causing no casualties.
Konar province has served as a refuge for several armed groups that have mounted sporadic attacks against U.S. and Afghan forces during the past several years. Loyalists of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former Afghan minister who is now a fugitive opponent of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, are reportedly operating in the territory.