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U.S. forces recover bodies of two U.S. service members from site of plane crash in Taliban territory in Afghanistan

Afghan forces were ambushed by Taliban fighters on Jan. 28, as they tried to reach the wreckage of a U.S. military aircraft that had crashed in Ghazni. (Video: Reuters)
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U.S. forces recovered the bodies of two U.S. service members on Tuesday from the site of an American surveillance plane crash in Taliban-controlled territory in Afghanistan, the U.S. military command in Kabul said in a statement.

What is believed to be the flight data recorder was also retrieved from the site, and the plane's remains were destroyed. The cause of the crash was still under investigation, the statement said, but "there are no indications the crash was caused by enemy fire."

The U.S. surveillance plane crashed Monday in Ghazni province, and earlier recovery attempts were thwarted by poor weather, heavily mined roads and Taliban attacks, according to Afghan officials.

But when U.S. forces arrived at the site, "the remains were found near the crash site, treated with dignity and respect by the local Afghan community, in accordance with their culture," according to the U.S. military statement.

Wahidullah Kaleemzai, Ghazni's provincial governor, said American forces launched the recovery attempt Tuesday after an operation alongside Afghan forces Monday night was aborted because of a Taliban attack and poor weather.

“Helicopters and drones flew above the site [Monday] night but could not land,” he said by phone Tuesday. Another local lawmaker, Hameedullah Nawroz, said roadside bombs placed by the Taliban on routes leading to the crash site also prevented recovery attempts.

The U.S. military command confirmed the crash Monday of a U.S. Air Force Bombardier E-11A in a statement from Col. Sonny Leggett, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

One Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, told The Washington Post that insurgent forces shot down the plane, but other Taliban statements Monday said the plane “crashed.”

Mujahid also claimed in a statement that the crash killed “high-ranking CIA officials on board,” but a U.S. official said Tuesday that “there was no one senior” aboard the plane. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The U.S. military statement Tuesday said “pending positive identification,” the identities of the two service members killed will be withheld until 24 hours after their next of kin are notified.

The crash took place in Deh Yak district, an area considered a Taliban stronghold long under the insurgents’ control. Ghazni is one of Afghanistan’s most volatile provinces, with the Taliban contesting several districts. In 2018, the insurgents overran Ghazni’s provincial capital, and that same year a Taliban-claimed roadside bomb killed three American soldiers there.

Twitter accounts linked to the Taliban shared video on Jan. 27 claiming to show the wreckage of a U.S. Air Force E-11A aircraft. (Video: Tariq Ghazniwal via Storyful)

The U.S. Bombardier E-11A is an electronics surveillance aircraft that helps boost tactical communications on the battlefield. In Afghanistan, it is used to help transmit communications between ground units and commanders, which is often a challenge in the country’s mountainous and rugged terrain.

The crash occurred as peace talks between the Taliban and American negotiators remain stalled. The United States is demanding a reduction in violence before formal talks can resume. Taliban leaders offered a proposal to reduce violence earlier this month.

Peace talks have brought with them an intensification of the conflict in Afghanistan in recent months, as U.S. and Taliban negotiators have sought to leverage battlefield victories. A peace agreement would include the withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops from the country.

There are about 13,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, according to the U.S. military command in Kabul. At the war’s height in 2010 and 2011, there were more than 100,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Earlier this month, a roadside bomb attack in Kandahar province left two U.S. service members dead and two wounded. Last year, 20 U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan, more than any other year since 2014.

Sharif Hassan and Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul contributed to this report.

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