Up to 16 killed in chopper crash in Afghanistan, including at least 2 Americans

Up to 16 killed in chopper crash in Afghanistan, including at least 2 Americans

Eds: Insert 13th graf, “Three of …” to UPDATE with company spokesman saying three crash victims were relatives of an employee

AP Graphic AFGHAN HELICOPTER CRASH

By FISNIK ABRASHI

Associated Press Writer

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) American and Afghan troops hiked through rugged terrain Thursday to reach the wreckage of a civilian helicopter that crashed in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, killing up to 16 people, including at least two Americans.

A purported Taliban spokesman claimed the rebels shot down the chopper, but a military official said it probably crashed by accident in bad weather.

The Russian-made Mi-8 helicopter owned by the Afghan government and operated by a private company crashed about 25 miles northeast of Khost city Wednesday, in a region where al-Qaida and Taliban militants are active. It was flying from the capital, Kabul.

Afghan and U.S. troops recovered 12 bodies and were searching for four others in the forbidding mountainous terrain, said Col. Tom Collins, a coalition spokesman. At least two American civilians were among those killed; the others were Afghans and foreigners, he said.

The Dutch military said two of its officers were killed in the crash the first Dutch military fatalities in Afghanistan, where it has about 1,500 troops as part of a NATO-led, multinational security force.

Officials said there were no survivors. But there was some uncertainty over the number of people on board because the manifest listing passengers’ names had been kept on the aircraft, according to a Western diplomat.

The 12 recovered bodies were being flown to the main U.S. base at Bagram Air Base, near Kabul, for repatriation, Collins said. He said there was no indication yet what caused the crash, but a Dutch military official said it was probably an accident.

“It was in a mountainous region in very bad weather rain and mist which reduced visibility. That points toward it being an accident such as flying into a mountain or something like that,” military spokesman Lt. Col. Nico van der Zee told The Associated Press.

He did not rule out the possibility of hostile fire.

In an e-mail to an AP reporter in Pakistan, Muhammad Hanif, who claims to speak for the Taliban, said its militants had shot down the chopper Wednesday afternoon with an unspecified “new weapon.”

Hanif’s ties to the Taliban leadership are unclear. In the past, claims of responsibility made in the name of the hard-line militia have sometimes proved false or exaggerated.

The helicopter was operated by a logistics firm, Tryco. A Tryco official in Kabul said the helicopter was rented by Fluor, a U.S.-based company doing construction work in Khost province, about 90 miles south of Kabul.

Three of those on the flight were family members of a Fluor employee, company spokesman Keith Stephens said. He did not disclose their nationalities.

After the crash, a U.S. aerial search and rescue team deployed but abandoned its search after harsh weather prevented the crew from landing. A quick reaction force headed there on foot instead, led by an Afghan, a coalition statement said.

They arrived at the crash site Thursday morning preceded by Afghan border police who found burned and dismembered bodies.

There have been a series of deadly helicopter crashes in Afghanistan over the past year from accidents or hostile fire, including another Mi-8, chartered by the Red Cross, that crashed high in snowy mountains in Kapisa province north of Kabul in January, killing all seven on board. The bodies were retrieved in June.

In May, 10 U.S. soldiers died when their CH-47 Chinook crashed by accident in the mountains of eastern Kunar province. In June 2005, a rocket-propelled grenade hit a Chinook in Kunar, killing 16 U.S. troops.

Also Thursday, artillery fire by coalition forces killed three suspected Taliban holed up in a house, a coalition statement said.

The rebels were killed following a failed ambush on a coalition convoy in the Zhari district of southern Kandahar province, according to the statement. There were no coalition or civilian causalities.

Associated Press writers Amir Shah and Matthew Pennington in Kabul and Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, contributed to this report.