Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Insurgents Shot Down NATO Helicopter and Killed Four American Troops in Afghanistan

By ROHAN SULLIVAN and RAHIM FAIEZ (AP)

Insurgents shot down a NATO helicopter and killed four American troops in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday, the military said, in the latest bloodshed ahead of a major operation in the militants' heartland.NATO said the four died "after their helicopter was brought down by hostile fire" in Helmand province, part of a volatile region where Taliban still hold sway despite a buildup of U.S. troops.Lt. Col. Joseph T. Breasseale, U.S. military spokesman in Kabul, confirmed the four troops killed were Americans, but the military and NATO gave no other details.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said the insurgents shot off two rockets to down the helicopter.Wednesday's casualties take American military deaths in Afghanistan to 17 since Sunday — part of a spike in violence that has included the deadliest day for NATO forces in more than seven months, according to a count by The Associated Press. Ten NATO forces died on Monday, including seven Americans. The previous most deadly day was Oct. 26 last year, when 11 American troops were killed.

The four deaths in Helmand province, and that of a British NATO service member in a homemade bomb attack earlier Wednesday, took the number of NATO troops killed this month to 29.Helmand provincial spokesman Daoud Ahmadi said the helicopter was shot down about midday in Sangin district during an operation involving NATO and Afghan security forces.

Attack helicopters and other aircraft have given NATO troops a big advantage over the insurgents, who are armed mostly with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.While shoulder-fired grenades can be used against aircraft — helicopters are especially vulnerable when taking off or landing — they are designed only for short-range use and aiming them accurately is difficult. NATO aircraft have only rarely been hit in Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, one of the heaviest single-day losses of life for allied forces in Afghanistan occurred on June 28, 2005, when 16 U.S. troops died aboard a Special Forces MH-47 Chinook helicopter that was shot down by insurgents.United States troops have been building up in southern Afghanistan — the Taliban's heartland — as part of President Barack Obama's surge strategy to try to bring an end to the nearly 9-year-old insurgency, and commanders have warned that more casualties can be expected.

Last December, Obama ordered some 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, and most are due to be deployed in the south.U.S. commanders hope the coming operation to secure Kandahar will turn the tide of the war in time for American troops to begin withdrawing on Obama's stated timetable starting in July 2011. Helmand province abuts Kandahar.As fighting escalates, the Afghan government is reaching out to the insurgents in hopes of ending the war.

Last week, President Hamid Karzai won endorsement from a national conference for his plan to offer incentives to the militants to lay down their arms, and to seek talks with the Taliban leadership. The leadership has so far publicly shunned the offer, and the U.S. is skeptical whether peace can succeed until the Taliban are weakened on the battlefield.

The Taliban have sought to sow fear among Afghans of cooperating with the foreign forces or Karzai's government, which they consider a puppet regime of Washington.Daoud Ahmadi said the Taliban hanged a 7-year-old boy in front of a crowd of people in Salarwi village in Sangin on Tuesday, accusing him of spying for foreign forces. The Taliban spokesman denied it.

In the north, about 20 Afghan girls were hospitalized after falling ill in their school in Sar-e-Pul province. Authorities said Wednesday they suspect the classroom's recent fumigation was to blame, but were investigating whether it was a poison attack.

Several group poisonings in girls' schools in the country's northeast this year have raised fears that the Taliban and other Islamic fundamentalists who oppose female education are using a new method to scare them away from classes.While no firm connection has been established between the illnesses and insurgents, the cases have raised people's sense of insecurity.

Girls' schools have regularly come under attack or have been burned down by militants, and some students have had acid thrown on them in what officials say are intimidation tactics.

Mirwais Khan in Kandahar
The Associated Press

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