31 US troops die in Afghanistan; many from unit that killed bin Laden
7 Afghan commandos are also killed; Chinook crash appears to be deadliest single incident in the decade-long war
KABUL, Afghanistan — A NATO helicopter crash in Afghanistan on Saturday killing 31 U.S. special-forces troops, including more than 20 Navy SEALS from the unit that killed Osama bin Laden, and 7 Afghan commandos.
It was the deadliest single combat incident for American troops in 10 years of war, according to an American official.
The operators from SEAL Team Six were flown by a crew of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regimen, according to U.S. officials who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because families are still being notified of the loss of their loved ones.
One source said the team was thought to include 22 SEALs, three Air Force air controllers, seven Afghan Army troops, a dog and his handler, and a civilian interpreter, plus the helicopter crew.
The sources thought this was the largest single loss of life ever for SEAL Team Six, known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group.
A brief statement from the presidential palace said the helicopter had crashed in central Wardak province, an area west of Kabul. The volatile region is known for its strong Taliban presence.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai "shared his deep sorrow and sadness" with U.S. counterpart Barack Obama and the families of the U.S. and Afghan victims, the statement said. Obama, who learned of the deaths while at Camp David, mourned the deaths of the 7 Afghan soldiers killed, and issued a written statement saying Americans' thoughts and prayers go out to the families of those who perished.
The crash is a reminder of the "extraordinary sacrifices" being made by America's military and its families, Obama wrote.
The Taliban claimed to have shot down the troop-carrying Chinook helicopter during a firefight. The Islamist group also said in a statement that eight insurgents had been killed in the battle.
NBC News quoted a Taliban spokesman as claiming the U.S. troops were attacking a compound that was housing militants when the aircraft was brought down. However, the Taliban has been known to make exaggerated claims in the past.
'Enemy activity in the area'
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) confirmed the overnight incident and said there "was enemy activity in the area." But it said it was still investigating the cause. The alliance was conducting a recovery operation at the site, it said, without releasing details or a casualty figure.
"We are aware of an incident involving a helicopter in eastern Afghanistan," said U.S. Air Force Capt. Justin Brockhoff, a NATO spokesman. "We are in the process of accessing the facts."
The helicopter was a twin-rotor Chinook, which are used for transport, said an official at NATO headquarters in Brussels, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Chinook was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, a military source reportedly told the New York Times.
Slideshow: Afghanistan: Nation at a crossroads (on this page)
Gen. Abdul Qayoom Baqizoy, police chief of Wardak, told the Times that the joint NATO-Afghan operation began around 1 a.m. Saturday with an attack on a Taliban compound in the village of Jaw-e-mekh Zareen.
He said the resulting firefight lasted at least two hours.
The majority of foreign troops in Wardak, which comes under ISAF's eastern regional command, are American.
The Washington Post reported that a second coalition helicopter made a "precautionary landing" Saturday in Afghanistan's Khost province. Brockhoff, the NATO spokesman, said the helicopter sustained minor damage and no injuries were reported. He rejected Taliban claims that the second aircraft had been shot down.
Aircraft crashes are relatively frequent in Afghanistan, where insecurity and difficult terrain make air travel essential for coalition forces transporting troops and equipment.
There have been at least 17 coalition and Afghan aircraft crashes in Afghanistan this year. Most of the crashes are attributed to pilot errors, weather conditions or mechanical failures. However, the coalition has confirmed that at least one CH-47F Chinook helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade on July 25, injuring two crewmembers.
The incident comes only two weeks after the start of a gradual process of handing security responsibility from foreign forces to Afghan troops and police, and at a time of growing unease about the increasingly unpopular and costly war.
That process is due to end with all foreign combat troops leaving Afghanistan by the end of 2014, but some U.S. lawmakers have already questioned whether that handover is fast enough.
The crash was by far the worst incident of the war for foreign troops and easily surpassed the worst incidents of battlefield losses.
In April 2005, another CH-47 Chinook helicopter crashed, killing 15 U.S. servicemen and three civilian contractors. Another Chinook crash in June the same year killed 17 U.S. troops.
U.S. and other NATO commanders have claimed success in reversing the momentum of a growing insurgency in the Taliban heartland in the south, although insurgents have shown a worrying ability to adapt their tactics and mount major attacks in other areas.
Those gains, however, have come at a price, with 711 foreign troops killed in Afghanistan in 2010, easily the deadliest year of the war for all concerned since the Taliban were toppled by U.S.-backed foreign troops in late 2001.
The crash in Wardak means that at least 374 foreign troops have been killed so far in 2011, more than two-thirds of them American, according to independent monitor www.icasualties.com and figures kept by Reuters.
Despite the alarming military toll, ordinary Afghan civilians have continued to bear the brunt of the war, with civilian casualties also hitting record levels in the first six months of this year, according to U.N. figures.
Earlier on Saturday, Afghan police said a NATO airstrike killed eight civilians in southern Helmand province on Friday.
ISAF confirmed there had been an airstrike in Helmand's Nad Ali district and said it was investigating whether civilians had been present at the time. Helmand, a Taliban stronghold, is the deadliest province in Afghanistan for international troops.
Civilian casualties caused by foreign troops hunting Taliban fighters and other insurgents have long been a major source of friction between Kabul and its Western backers.
Nad Ali district police chief Shidi Khan said the airstrike was called in after insurgents attacked ISAF troops in the area.