Six U.S. soldiers killed in Afghan helicopter crash

The incident was the single biggest loss of life for the NATO mission in Afghanistan since June

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Six U.S. soldiers from the NATO mission fighting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan were killed in a helicopter crash on Tuesday, with officials saying it was not a suspected militant strike.

However the Taliban immediately claimed responsibility for the deaths, using their main Twitter account to report that their fighters had shot down the U.S. helicopter in the southern province of Zabul.

The incident was the single biggest loss of life for the NATO mission in Afghanistan since seven Georgian soldiers died when a suicide bomber blew up a truck loaded with explosives outside a base in Helmand province in June.

“Six International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) service members died following an aircraft crash in southern Afghanistan today,” an ISAF statement said.

“The cause of the crash is under investigation, however initial reporting indicates there was no enemy activity in the area at the time of the crash.”

U.S. defense officials in Washington told AFP that the fatalities were U.S. troops.

“I can confirm six Americans were killed,” said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

An investigation was underway to determine “the cause of engine failure,” the official said.

The Taliban Twitter account, under the name Abdulqahar Balkhi, said the helicopter was brought down on Tuesday afternoon while flying low over the district of Shah Joy in Zabul.

“(The) chopper crashed in (a) ball of flame... killing all 8 invaders aboard,” the account said.

The Taliban regularly make unsubstantiated claims of attacks on NATO and Afghan forces and also exaggerate casualty numbers in proven strikes.

Provincial officials confirmed the incident in Zabul, a restive province bordering on Helmand and neighboring Pakistan.

“I can confirm a helicopter crashed in Shah Joy district this afternoon but we don’t have any information about the casualties or the cause of the hard landing,” Mohammad Jan Rasolyar, deputy governor of Zabul province, told AFP.

Local officials said that ISAF and Afghan forces rushed to the scene of the crash and were still on patrol around the site when darkness fell.

Aircraft crashes are fairly frequent in Afghanistan, where the 75,000-strong international mission relies heavily on air transport as it battles the insurgency alongside Afghan forces who now take the lead in most military operations.

The last fatal helicopter incident for U.S. forces occurred in April, when an Apache chopper went down in eastern Afghanistan, claiming the lives of two American troops.

Five U.S. troops also died in the southern province of Kandahar in March when their helicopter came down during a heavy rainstorm.

Before Tuesday’s crash, there had been 149 NATO fatalities in Afghanistan this year, 119 of them U.S. soldiers, according to the independent casualties’ website.

The annual total peaked in 2010, when 711 NATO troops died.

NATO combat operations in Afghanistan are due to end next year, and coalition commanders say that the local army and police have made enough progress to provide general security and keep the Taliban at bay.

A small U.S.-led contingent is due to stay in the country pending the signature of a security agreement between Washington and Kabul.

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