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Helicopter Hit by Gunfire Before Crashing in Afghanistan, 17 Missing

The fate of the 17 American soldiers aboard is unknown.

The helicopter was carrying troops as part of Operation Red Wing, an offensive aimed at al-Qaida militants and remnants of the former Taliban regime, the military said.

“Coalition troops on the ground in this area came in contact with enemy forces and requested additional forces to be inserted into this operation,” U.S. military spokesman Col. James Yonts told a news conference. “That is why there was an aircraft, that is how it arrived on the battlefield.”

The chopper was ferrying Navy Seals and other special operations forces into the fight when it went down, The New York Times reported Wednesday.

Yonts could not confirm whether the enemy fire had actually brought the helicopter down, but the governor of the Kunar province where the crash happened, Asadullah Wafa, told Reuters that a rocket shot down the Chinook.

Wafa’s statement appeared to confirm claims by a spokesman for the Taliban, Abdul Latif Hakimi, who said guerrillas shot down the aircraft using “a new type of weapon”.

U.S. Central Command issued a statement Wednesday saying, “Coalition and Afghan National Army forces quickly moved into position around the crash to block any enemy movement toward or away from the site. Coalition aircraft remain overhead.”

News out of the site was limited because the anti-insurgent fighting in the region has been intense.

“This is a tragic event for all of us, and our hearts and prayers go out to the families, loved ones and service members still fighting in the area,” U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Greg Champion said Wednesday. “Our courage and commitment to America’s fight in the global war on terror will not waver. This incident will only further our resolve to defeat the enemies of peace.”

If the 17 aboard are not found alive, it would make it one of the single deadliest attacks against American forces since Afghan troops, backed by the U.S. military, ousted the Taliban regime in late 2001.

The latest anti-insurgent operation came as intense fighting between the Afghan Army and Taliban and al-Qaida militants continued in the south. In the last two weeks, more than 125 people have died in fighting throughout the country.

The battles also come as U.S. officials warn violence in the restive South Asian nation was likely to intensify. Peter Rodman, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, told the House Armed Services Committee that violence will likely increase as planned elections in September near.

“We can expect a rise in attempts by al-Qaida, Taliban and other spoilers to disrupt this process [of elections with further violence],” Rodman said June 22.

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