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All 16 bodies recovered from Afghan crash

By wire services
Published July 1, 2005

WASHINGTON - Three days after a Chinook helicopter went down in heavy combat in eastern Afghanistan, U.S. troops were able to reach the crash site in a mountainous ravine and recover the bodies of all 16 servicemen aboard, military officials said.

But Pentagon officials said Thursday that combat in the area was continuing and that commanders in Washington did not have complete information about troops who had been fighting insurgents in the vicinity when the helicopter crashed Tuesday.

"There's an ongoing rescue mission and we just don't have any more to confirm than what we have confirmed," Lawrence Di Rita, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said at a briefing for reporters.

Earlier reports that there were 17 people on the aircraft were mistaken, the military said.

The MH-47 Chinook was apparently downed by a "lucky shot" from an insurgent rocket-propelled grenade, Pentagon officials said.

The downing marked the first time an American military helicopter crashed due to hostile fire in Afghanistan, Marine Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters. The crew of a second aircraft witnessed the attack, he said.

Other helicopters have been lost due to weather and poor flying conditions, he said.

"Indications are that it was an RPG, which is a pretty lucky shot, honestly, against a moving helicopter," Conway told reporters in a Pentagon briefing. He said it appears the troops on board died during the crash and not during a fight on the ground afterward.

Conway emphasized that military officials did not believe the helicopter downing represented an advancement in the abilities of insurgents.

"There's no indication that there are more sophisticated ... ground-to-air systems ... that are involved," he said. "I don't see it as an increased level of sophistication."

Stephen Hadley, President Bush's national security adviser, called it "a sad day."

"Any loss of life is a sad event for the country and for the president," Hadley said. "He and the nation mourn every life. He remains confident that the loss of life is in a good cause in terms of bringing stability and freedom to Afghanistan so that Afghanistan does not again become the kind of haven for terrorists that allowed things like 9/11 to occur."

The dead on the helicopter included eight Navy SEALs and eight Army air crew, the Associated Press reported, quoting an unnamed U.S. official in Washington. They were members of a force that had been sent as urgently needed reinforcements after radio calls from troops already in place saying they were in combat with insurgents, the New York Times reported, quoting an unnamed senior military official.

U.S. forces were fighting a large group of suspected Taliban insurgents, and rescue efforts have been impeded by continued fighting, bad weather and the mountainous terrain of the region.

"Afghan National Army and Coalition forces remain actively engaged in Operation Red Wing, an effort to defeat terrorists operating in Kunar province. Forces are also in position to impede any enemy movement into or away from the crash site," the U.S. military in Kabul said in a statement.

Asked about the troops who requested reinforcements, Conway said, "We don't have full accountability, nor will we until such time as the operation is complete."

After the Chinook went down, a second helicopter nearby returned to base, and soon after that the United States lost a live video feed from the location from a Predator drone flying overhead, the New York Times reported, quoting an unnamed senior Pentagon official. The official said the Predator was believed to have crashed as well. Another official said that crash appeared not to have been caused by hostile fire.

Details of the operation have been scant, but several consistent accounts have been provided to the New York Times by military spokesmen, other military officials, and people outside the military who have been told about events. Those who provided these accounts would not be named, as the situation remained fluid and involved special operations forces.

Soon after the crash, additional aircraft were sent to the crash site to provide air cover for any survivors, and more troops were dropped off in two locations several miles away with orders to make their way to the crash site and to reinforce the other U.S. troops in the area. But poor weather and difficult terrain, as well as ongoing combat, delayed their arrival at the crash site.

Relatives of troops on the Chinook have been told that no one survived the crash, but forensic identification of the bodies is still being completed, the New York Times reported, quoting the unnamed senior Pentagon official.

A Taliban spokesman, Abdullah Latif Hakimi, claimed responsibility for the crash of the Chinook and also said Taliban forces had killed seven U.S. servicemen, whom he called "spies," when they encountered them on the ground. It has been impossible independently to confirm his claims. He said Thursday that he had stopped all contact with the Taliban fighters in the area to avoid endangering them.

The loss of the helicopter follows three months of unprecedented fighting that has killed about 465 suspected insurgents, 43 Afghan police and soldiers, 125 civilians, and 45 U.S. troops, including the 16 killed in Tuesday's crash. Afghan and American officials have predicted the situation will deteriorate before legislative elections in September.

The remnants of the former Taliban regime have stepped up attacks, and there are disturbing signs that foreign fighters - including some linked to al-Qaida - might be making a new push to sow mayhem. Afghan officials say the fighters have used the porous border with Pakistan to enter the country, and officials have called on the Pakistani government to do more to stop them.

--Information from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Associated Press was used in this report.

[Last modified July 1, 2005, 01:25:06]

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