Copter downing in Afghanistan kills 30 Americans

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(AP) - Insurgents shot down a U.S. military helicopter during fighting in eastern Afghanistan, killing 30 Americans, most of them belonging to the same elite unit as the Navy SEALs who killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, U.S.officials said Saturday. It was the deadliest single loss forAmerican forces in the decade-old war against the Taliban.The downing, in which seven Afghan commandos were also killed,was a stinging blow to the lauded, tight-knit SEAL Team 6, monthsafter its crowning achievement. It was also a heavy setback for theU.S.-led coalition as it begins to draw down thousands of combattroops fighting what has become an increasingly costly andunpopular war. None of the 22 SEAL personnel killed in the crash were part ofthe team that killed bin Laden in a May raid in Pakistan, but theybelonged to the same unit. Their deployment in the raid in whichthe helicopter crashed would suggest that the target was ahigh-ranking insurgent figure. Special operations forces, including the SEALs and others, havebeen at the forefront in the stepped up strategy of taking out keyinsurgent leaders in targeted raids, and they will be relied oneven more as regular troops pull out. The strike is also likely to boost the morale of the Taliban ina key province that controls a strategic approach to the capitalKabul. The Taliban claimed they downed the helicopter with a rocketwhile it was taking part in a raid on a house where insurgents weregathered in the province of Wardak overnight. Wreckage of the craftwas strewn across the crash site, a Taliban spokesman said. A senior U.S. administration official in Washington said itappeared the craft had been shot down. The official spoke oncondition of anonymity because the crash is still beinginvestigated. "Their deaths are a reminder of the extraordinary sacrificesmade by the men and women of our military and their families,including all who have served in Afghanistan," President BarackObama said in a statement, adding that his thoughts and prayers goout to the families of those who perished. The U.S.-led coalition said in a statement that 30 Americanservice members, a civilian interpreter and seven Afghan commandoswere killed when their CH-47 Chinook crashed in the early hoursSaturday. A current U.S. official and a former U.S. official saidthe Americans included 22 SEALs, three Air Force air controllersand a dog handler and his dog. The two spoke on condition ofanonymity because military officials were still notifying thefamilies of the dead. Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced the number of peoplekilled in the crash and the presence of special operations troopsbefore any other public figure. He also offered his condolences tothe American and Afghan troops killed in the crash. The deaths bring to 365 the number of coalition troops killedthis year in Afghanistan and 42 this month. The overnight raid took place in the Tangi Joy Zarin area ofWardak's Sayd Abad district, about 60 miles (97 kilometers)southwest of Kabul. Forested peaks in the region give theinsurgency good cover and the Taliban have continued to use it as abase despite repeated NATO assaults. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement that thehelicopter was involved in an assault on a house where insurgentfighters were gathering. During the battle, the fighters shot downthe helicopter with a rocket, he said. An American official in Brussels said the helicopter was atwin-rotor Chinook, a large troop and cargo transporter. The casualties are believed to be largest loss of life in thehistory of SEAL Team Six, officially called the Navy SpecialWarfare Development Group, or DEVGRU. The team is considered thebest of the best among the already elite SEALs, which numbers 3,000personnel. Afghanistan has more U.S. special operations troops, about10,000, than any other theater of war. The forces, often joined byAfghan troops, carry out as many as a dozen raids a night and havebecome one of the most effective weapons in the coalition'sarsenal, also conducting surveillance and infiltration. From April to July this year, special operations raids captured2,941 insurgents and killed 834, twice as many as those killed orcaptured in the same three-month period of 2010, according to NATO. The coalition plans to increase its reliance on specialoperations missions as it reduces the overall number of combattroops. The loss of so many SEALs at once will have a temporary impact on the tempo of missions they can carry out, but with an ongoingdrawdown of special operations forces from Iraq, there will be morein reserve for Afghan missions. The site of the crash, Tangi, is a particularly dangerous area,the site where many of the attacks that take place in the provinceare planned, said Wardak's Deputy Gov. Ali Ahmad Khashai. "Evenwith all of the operations conducted there, the opposition is stillactive." The U.S. army had intended to hand over its Combat Outpost Tangi to Afghan National Security Forces in April, but the Afghans neverestablished a permanent base there. "We deemed it not to bestategic and closed it," said coalition spokesman U.S. Army Maj.Jason Waggoner. "The Taliban went in and occupied it because itwas vacant." Western military commanders have been debating moving forcesfrom other areas in Afghanistan to reinforce troops around thecapital and in the east, where the Taliban is often aided byal-Qaida and other terrorist groups. Earlier this year, the U.S.military closed smaller outposts in at least two eastern provincesand consolidated its troops onto larger bases because of increasedinsurgent attacks and infiltration from the Pakistan border. Therehave been at least 17 coalition and Afghan aircraft crashes inAfghanistan this year.

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