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10 U.S. Soldiers Dead In Chinook Crash

Ten U.S. soldiers died when their transport helicopter crashed during combat operations aimed at flushing out Taliban and al Qaeda militants from remote mountains in eastern Afghanistan, military officials said Saturday.

The crash of the CH-47 Chinook Friday afternoon was the deadliest for U.S. forces here in a year and comes at a time of increasing militant attacks, though U.S. officials ruled out hostile fire as a cause.

"There is no indication that the helicopter came down due to some enemy action," Lt. Tamara D. Lawrence, a coalition spokeswoman, told The Associated Press.

Some 2,500 Afghan and U.S. soldiers are conducting a joint military operation, dubbed Operation Mountain Lion, in Kunar province, near the border with Pakistan. It's one of the biggest offensives since the ouster of the hard-line Taliban regime by U.S.-led forces in late 2001 for hosting al Qaeda.

The Chinook was conducting "operations on a mountaintop landing zone" when it crashed near Asadabad in Kunar, about 150 miles east of Kabul, the capital, the military said.

The terrain surrounding Asadabad — where the U.S. military has a large base — is extremely rugged, and the police chief of Kunar province, Gen. Abdul Ghafar, said the helicopter crashed about 10 miles northwest of the base at a remote spot a day's walk from any passable road.

"The area of the crash is a mountainous area and it is difficult to reach," Ghafar said.

Recovery operations did not begin until daybreak Saturday. The military did not say what unit the U.S. troops were from, only specifying that they were soldiers, meaning from the Army, and not Marines.

Read about the U.S. military's efforts to find a replacement for the Chinook helicopter.

The crash comes at a time of increasing attacks in Afghanistan's southern and eastern provinces, where militants have been using suicide and roadside bombs more than ever. The 10 deaths brings to at least 25 the number of U.S. military personnel killed in Afghanistan this year, according to the Web site, which relies on Defense Department releases for its information.

At least 234 U.S. military personnel, including those killed Friday, have died in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan as a result of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, according to the Defense Department.

Also Saturday, in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, a British military helicopter was apparently shot down, and a crowd of Iraqis cheered and threw stones at British forces who raced to the scene to seal off the area.

News of the crash came as the U.S. ambassador in charge of counterterrorism called parts of Pakistan's mountainous border region a "safe haven" for militants and said Osama bin Laden was more likely to be hiding there than in Afghanistan.

Henry Crumpton lauded Pakistan for arresting "hundreds and hundreds" of al Qaeda figures but said that it needed to do more.

The chief spokesman for Pakistan's army, Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, dismissed Crumpton's comments as "absurd."

A U.S. military statement said that other aircraft and crews were near the landing zone during Friday's crash and confirmed that enemy fire did not cause it.

A purported Taliban spokesman, Mohammed Hanif, called the AP to claim that Taliban militants had shot down the helicopter using a "new weapon" that he refused to specify. The phone call didn't come until after news of the crash was made public.

"The Taliban have made those claims before and they have turned out to be completely false, and there's absolutely no indication that hostile action caused this crash," Lawrence said.

"The Taliban is gaining strength," explained CBS News Afghanistan Consultant Jere Van Dyk. "There are many parts, particularly in the south, while the US or Nato soldiers may be in control during the day, at night the country belongs to the Taliban."

Last June, all 16 troops on board a Chinook died in Kunar when it was hit by a militant's rocket-propelled grenade — the deadliest attack against American forces in Afghanistan.

In September, a Chinook helicopter crashed in a mountainous area in southeastern province of Zabul, killing all five American crew members.

In August, 17 Spanish troops died in a helicopter crash in the western city of Herat. That crash was blamed on fierce winds.

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