KABUL, Afghanistan - The Chinook helicopter that insurgents shot down over the weekend burst into flames before hitting the ground, leaving wreckage scattered on both sides of a river in eastern Afghanistan and killing 30 Americans and eight Afghans, witnesses told The Associated Press on Thursday.
Farhad, a resident of Tangi Valley in Wardak province where the helicopter crashed before dawn Saturday, told Associated Press Television News at the site that it was brought down by a rocket-propelled grenade fired from a hillside that he pointed to.
"As soon as it was hit, it started burning," he said, standing in a field still littered with small pieces of the chopper, a part of a gun stamped "Made in Germany" and a piece of paper with typewritten first aid instructions. "After it started burning, it crashed. It came down in three pieces," he added. "We could see it burning from our homes."
Many of the victims' bodies were badly mangled and burned, said Farhad, who like many Afghans uses only one name.
The crash of the Chinook CH-47, about 60 miles (97 kilometers) southwest of Kabul, was the deadliest single loss for U.S. forces in the nearly 10-year Afghan war.
The crash comes amid fears that the country is far from stable even though U.S. and NATO forces have begun to leave Afghanistan. U.S. military officials have tried to counter those fears, saying that while it was a tragic setback, one crash will not determine the course of the war.
The crash killed 17 SEALs, five Navy special operations troops who support the SEALs, three Air Force airmen, a five-member Army air crew, seven Afghan commandos and an Afghan interpreter.
Gul Agha, another resident of Tangi Valley who was interviewed at the crash site, also said that after it crashed, parts of the helicopter were burning on either side of the Tangi river. Some of the debris also ended up on a nearby hillside.
"When the helicopter came at night, the Taliban were hiding in the bushes around the area," he said.
He said coalition forces worked several days to remove the victims' remains. Then they blew up sections of the helicopter into smaller pieces and loaded them on trucks and took them from the site, he said.
Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said Wednesday that F-16 fighter jets killed the insurgents responsible for the crash. But the military provided few details to back up the claim.
"We tracked them as we would in the aftermath of any operation, and we dealt with them with a kinetic strike, and in the aftermath of that we have achieved certainty that they, in fact, were killed in that strike," Allen said.
The U.S.-led coalition has also said the helicopter was apparently shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade. But Allen, speaking with Pentagon reporters over a video hookup from coalition headquarters in Kabul, said the military will investigate whether small arms fire or other causes contributed to the crash.
In other violence in Afghanistan, a roadside bomb in the south killed five NATO troops Thursday, the U.S.-led coalition said. Another service member died Wednesday in another roadside bombing and five Afghan policemen were killed when their checkpoint was attacked by Taliban insurgents, the coalition and Afghan police said.
The latest deaths, which raised to 374 the number of international forces killed so far this year, underscored the tenuous nature of the war. The Taliban continues to strike hard even as the international forces press the militants while readying their Afghan counterparts to take over securing the country by the end of 2014 when the international combat mission is to end.