8 die in U.S. copter crash

Power loss reported over Afghanistan

14 survive with injuries

February 19, 2007|By Shafiqullah Azimi and Laura King | Shafiqullah Azimi and Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

KABUL,Afghanistan -- A U.S. military helicopter crashed before dawn yesterday in southern Afghanistan, killing eight American service members and injuring the remaining 14 aboard, military officials said.

The pilot had reported an unexplained power loss shortly before the twin-rotor CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter plunged to the ground in the Shahjoi district of Zabul province, near the main highway between Kabul and Kandahar.

It was the first U.S. military helicopter crash in Afghanistan involving multiple fatalities since May, when 10 troops were killed in eastern Kunar province as the pilot tried to set down on a mountaintop in the dark.

Yesterday's crash was also the deadliest single incident this year for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

The U.S. military said there was no indication that the crash was caused by enemy fire, although the Taliban are known to be active in the area. The insurgents are expected to intensify their fight against allied troops as mountain snows melt and the weather improves.

Unlike in Iraq, where the downing of U.S. helicopters has emerged as a prime tactic of the insurgents, the Taliban have demonstrated little ability to menace allied aircraft. Only one U.S. helicopter is thought to have been brought down by hostile fire, in 2005. Sixteen American troops died in that crash, which was apparently caused by a rocket strike.

Rough terrain and often-turbulent weather pose substantial dangers to military aviation in Afghanistan. A mixture of rain and snow lashed parts of Zabul province overnight, and the provincial governor, Dilber Jan Arman, said through a spokesman that poor conditions might have been a factor.

"It was rainy and snowy," said the spokesman, Gulab Shah Ali Khail. "We don't believe the crash was caused by enemy fire."

The governor said another U.S. helicopter also was operating in the area at the time. U.S. military officials did not confirm the presence of a second craft.

Allied troops and Afghan soldiers cordoned off the scene of the crash, which scattered smoking wreckage within sight of the main Kabul-Kandahar highway. Passing vehicles were stopped and searched while troops combed the area.

The U.S. military declined to release any details about where the helicopter had taken off from, where it was bound or what its mission was. There is a NATO base in Zabul province, at the site of an ancient fortress deep in the high desert, and troops and supplies are often ferried in from Kandahar airfield, the main allied base in the south.

The allied military effort in Afghanistan is highly dependent on helicopter transport of troops and supplies. There are very few serviceable roads in mountainous areas, distances are great, and military ground transport is vulnerable to roadside bombings and suicide attacks.

Fear of potential suicide bombings leaves troops in a state of hair-trigger alert, sometimes with tragic consequences for civilians. In separate incidents Saturday and yesterday near Kandahar, two Afghan men were fatally shot by NATO troops who feared they might be trying to carry out bombings.

Military officials said one of the men darted between stationary vehicles in a military convoy, and the second one ignored shouted warnings to stop as he approached troops. In that incident, allied soldiers mistook straps dangling from the man's jacket for protruding wires, but no explosives were found, the military said, adding that it regretted the deaths.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly complained that civilian casualties inflame popular resentment against foreign troops and undermine NATO efforts to shore up his government. Afghan civilians say that they generally do not understand troops' shouted orders and that warning shots are more inclined to prompt them to flee than halt.

Shafiqullah Azimi and Laura King write for the Los Angeles Times.

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