KABUL (AFP) – A US military helicopter crashed in southeastern Afghanistan, killing nine people, in the worst air accident suffered by American-led forces since they toppled the Taliban in late 2001.
The US blamed bad weather for the crash of the giant twin-rotor Chinook, which came down while on patrol in Ghazni province, around 100 kilometres (62 miles) south of the capital Kabul.
The ultra-Islamic Taliban, who continue to wage an insurgency in the war-torn country, later said they had shot down the helicopter. There was no way to independently verify the claim.
“Nine people are confirmed dead in the crash Wednesday afternoon of a coalition CH-47 Chinook helicopter,” US military spokesman Lieutenant Cindy Moore told AFP.
All the victims were Americans, a Western security source said on condition of anonymity. The US military said it was witholding details of those on board pending notification of next of kin.
“This is the worst record for a crash in Operation Enduring Freedom,” Moore added.
The US-led coalition launched the operation to oust the Taliban when they refused to hand over Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
Chinooks are a mainstay of the US-led coalition force in rugged Afghanistan, where they are used for transport duties. They have also been employed for relief work during recent spring floods.
They have a minimum crew of four and can carry dozens of passengers.
Moore said the helicopter was one of two Chinooks returning from a patrol in southern Afghanistan. The second helicopter returned safely to Bagram, the main US air base which is just north of Kabul.
“Initial reports indicate that the cause of the crash was severe weather,” Moore said. A full investigation was under way.
“A recovery operation is at the site providing security and accounting for the dead,” Moore said.
However Taliban spokesman Latif Hakimi said militants had shot down the helicopter with an 82 mm gun. The militia regularly claims responsibility for incidents involving coalition casualties.
“The helicopter did not crash due to bad weather, it was downed by us,” Hakimi said in a telephone call to the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press.
Provincial governor Asadullah Khalid said he had seen two bodies after the crash in Dah Khudaidad district, 2.5 kilometres (1.5 miles) southwest of the provincial capital, Ghazni city.
“I went to the crash site. We took two bodies out of the helicopter,” he said. “They were Americans,” he added, without elaborating how he knew their nationality.
Around 18,000 US and other foreign troops in Afghanistan are hunting down remnants of the Taliban regime and their Al-Qaeda allies. They are also helping with anti-drug operations.
US forces flying missions above Afghanistan’s difficult, mountainous terrain have now suffered eight helicopter crashes since the end of 2001, Moore said.
The seven previous crashes before Wednesday’s accident claimed 21 lives, she added. The last victim was the pilot of a Black Hawk helicopter which came down near the western city of Herat in October.
Six people — three US military personnel and three American civilians — died last November when their rented civilian transport plane crashed in central Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province.
In December 2002 seven German soldiers died in a crash during a routine reconnaisance flight over Kabul.
US forces took delivery of their first Chinooks, which are manufactured by the Seattle-based Boeing company, in 1962 but a series of new models has since been produced.