Helicopter Reported Shot Down in Afghanistan

A civilian helicopter ferrying humanitarian aid was
shot down Tuesday in a southern Afghan province where fighting with
the Taliban is raging, killing all six Ukrainian crew members and a
child on the ground, officials said. Two U.S. Marines and an
Italian soldier died in the latest clashes.

The transport helicopter crashed in flames in the Sangin
district of Helmand province, the center of Afghanistan's opium
poppy cultivation where thousands of Marines are conducting their
biggest offensive since the hardline Islamic movement was ousted
from power in 2001.

NATO officials in Kabul said the cause of the crash was under
investigation and gave no further details.

But the civil aviation authority of the former Soviet republic
of Moldova said a rocket or a missile struck the Mi-26 helicopter,
owned by the Moldovan air charter company Pecotox-Airi and carrying
six Ukrainians. The helicopter was ferrying humanitarian aid when
the crash took place, the Moldovans said in a statement.

The Taliban posted a statement on its Web site claiming the
helicopter was brought down "by anti-aircraft fire" with 37
British soldiers on board. Moldovan and British authorities said no
British troops were on the helicopter. Daud Ahmadi, the spokesman
for the Helmand governor, said a 6-year-old child on the ground was
also killed.

The crash occurred about a mile from a British base military
base, according to Fazel Haq, a senior local official. The
helicopter exploded in a ball of flames, generating smoke that
could be seen over a wide area.

Last week, two Canadian soldiers and one British trooper were
killed in a helicopter crash in Zabul province. Officials said that
crash did not appear a result of hostile fire.

Afghanistan's harsh mountainous terrain, the lack of roads and
the heavy use by the Taliban of roadside bombs have prompted
international military forces to rely heavily on helicopters for
transportation and supply missions. A shortage of military
helicopters has forced some NATO nations to contract with private
companies.

The two American Marines were killed Monday in a "hostile
incident" in Helmand, according to U.S. military spokeswoman Capt.
Elizabeth Mathias. She released no further details.

Those deaths brought to at least 107 the number of U.S. troops
killed in Afghanistan so far this year, compared with 151 in all of
2008. As of Monday, at least 660 members of the U.S. military had
died in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan since the war began in
2001, according to the Defense Department. Of those, the military
says 492 were killed by hostile action.

One Italian soldier was killed and three were wounded Tuesday
when a roadside bomb struck their convoy about 30 miles north of
the city of Farah in western Afghanistan, the Italian Defense
Ministry announced. Italy has about 2,800 soldiers in Afghanistan,
mostly in Kabul and the west of the country.

U.S. commanders are trying to turn the tide of the Taliban-led
insurgency, which has transformed much of southern and eastern
Afghanistan into no-go zones for Afghan authorities.

President Barack Obama has ordered 21,000 additional U.S. troops
to Afghanistan this year. There are about 57,000 U.S. troops
currently in the country, and the number is expected to rise to at
least 68,000 by the end of 2009.

Obama said Tuesday that he hopes military operations in
Afghanistan can transition to a different phase after the Afghan
presidential election set for Aug. 20. Obama said he is looking for
an exit strategy in which the Afghan army, police, courts and
government take more responsibility for the country's security.

To that end, about 4,000 U.S. Marines launched their operation
July 2 in Helmand province, hoping to prevent Taliban fighters from
disrupting the presidential ballot in what has been a longtime
Taliban stronghold.

British forces, meanwhile, are facing a tough fight in another
area of Helmand. Britain's 9,000-strong force has lost a record 15
soldiers this month - including eight in a 24-hour period,
prompting a national debate over whether the conflict is still
winnable.

The British Ministry of Defense announced Tuesday it was sending
another 140 soldiers to Afghanistan from a British base in Cyprus
to bolster the war effort.


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