A Russian-made helicopter crashed in bad weather in eastern Afghan mountains, killing all 16 on board, including at least two American civilians and two Dutch military officers, officials said Thursday.
The cause of the crash was unclear. The Mi-8 civilian chopper went down on Wednesday, about 22-25 miles northeast of Khost city, a region where al Qaeda and Taliban militants are believed to be active.
A purported Taliban spokesman claimed the hard-line militia's responsibility, but a Dutch military official said it looked like the crash was an accident.
Afghan army and coalition troops who hiked to where the chopper went down in rugged mountains have recovered 12 bodies and are searching for four more, Col. Tom Collins, a coalition spokesman, told reporters in Kabul.
"There are no survivors," Collins said. "The terrain in this area is extremely difficult and we are now working hard to recover the remaining crew and passengers."
Collins said those on board included a mix of Afghans and foreigners, including at least two Americans.
The Dutch military said two of its officers, a lieutenant colonel from the air force and an army sergeant, both serving with a NATO-led security force, were on board.
"It looks bad, and by that I mean that the helicopter has crashed, not, as we had hoped, made a hard landing," said Dutch Defense Ministry spokesman Lt. Col. Nico van der Zee in The Hague. "It's beginning to look like the people have died."
There have been no fatalities before among the more than 1,500 Dutch forces in Afghanistan.
The helicopter was operated by a logistics firm, Tryco. A Tryco official in Kabul said the chopper was rented by Fluor, a U.S.-based company doing construction work in Khost province, about 90 miles south of the capital, Kabul.
The 16 people on board reportedly included atleast three crew.
A Western diplomat, who was not authorized to speak to media, said there was confusion over who had been on board the helicopter as the passenger manifest listing their names had been kept on the aircraft. It was flying from Kabul to Khost.
Collins said there was no indication yet what caused the crash, but Van der Zee said it looked like an accident.
"It was in a mountainous region in very bad weather, rain and mist which reduced visibility. That points toward it being an accident such as flying into a mountain or something like that," he said.
However, he added that the military had not yet ruled out the chopper being shot down.
In an e-mail to an Associated Press reporter in Pakistan, Muhammad Hanif, who claims to speak for the Taliban, claimed its militants had shot down the chopper on Wednesday afternoon with an unspecified "new weapon."
Hanif's exact ties to the Taliban leadership are unclear. In the past, claims of responsibility made in the name of the hard-line militia have sometimes proved false or exaggerated.
Maj. Luke Knittig, a spokesman for a NATO-led security force in Afghanistan, said the Dutch officers were going to Khost to study security arrangements at a U.S.-run base, to help them as they establish their own camps in restive Uruzgan province where most of their troops in Afghanistan are deployed.
In Kabul, Gen. Abdul Rahman, deputy chief of Afghan border police, said a team of border police had reached the crash scene on Wednesday afternoon and found at least four bodies. He said the bodies were burned and dismembered. A coalition quick reaction team reached the site on Thursday.
There have been a series of fatal helicopter crashes in Afghanistan over the past year from accidents or hostile fire.
In January, another Mi-8 transport chopper chartered by the Red Cross crashed high in snowy mountains in Kapisa province north of Kabul, killing all seven on board. The bodies were only retrieved in June.
In May, 10 U.S. soldiers died when their CH-47 Chinook crashed in the mountains of eastern Kunar province during combat operations against militants near the Pakistan border. There was no sign the crash was caused by hostile fire.
In June 2005, all 16 U.S. troops on board a Chinook died in Kunar when it was hit by a militant's rocket-propelled grenade.