A Black Hawk helicopter ferrying troops to a “hot zone” of insurgent activity crashed in southern Afghanistan Thursday morning, killing 11 people, including seven American service members, officials said.
NATO said it was still investigating the cause of the crash, but U.S. officials told NBC News that the chopper was shot down in the Shahwalikot area of Khandahar, a stronghold of the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan before a U.S.-led alliance ousted them for sheltering Al Qaeda leaders following the 9/11 attacks.
The dead included two Navy SEALs and a Navy expert in explosive ordnance disposal, a military official told NBC. Three Afghan soldiers and an Afghan interpreter were also killed.
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A provincial government spokesman confirmed that the helicopter had been shot down, and the Taliban claimed responsibility, saying they were trying to thwart a raid by “invaders.”
While the Taliban often exaggerate their victories and are quick to claim any incident involving the death of foreign troops, it could be significant that they took responsibility for Thursday's crash hours before NATO announced it, according to NBC News.
The Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk was totally destroyed, and American troops engaged in a shootout with enemy forces who were trying to reach the crash site on foot, military officials told NBC.
The crash came at a particularly violent summer in Afghanistan, where American service members are dying at a rate of about one a day despite an ongoing reduction in troops and preparations to hand the 11-year-old war over to the Afghan military, The Associated Press noted. Less than a week ago, six American service members were gunned down, allegedly Afghan troops they were training. Twenty-six Americans have been killed this month, and at least 219 this year.
On Tuesday, at least 46 people were killed after a motorcycle bomb exploded outside a bazaar in northern Afghanistan and as many as 14 suicide bombers attacked a southwestern city, according to the AP. It was the deadliest day for Afghan civilians in a year.
The majority of international combat troops are scheduled to exit the country by the end of 2014. But the latest round of attacks will no doubt raise doubts about Afghan security forces’ ability to stabilize the country.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S.-led military coalition is making a priority of trying to prevent such attacks, which the Taliban claims are aimed at weakening the alliance between home-grown troops and their international partners.
Thursday’s crash was the deadliest since a Turkish helicopter struck a house near Kabul in March, klling 12 Turkish soldiers on board and four Afghan civilians on the ground, officials told the AP. In August 2011, The Taliban shot down a CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter over central Afghanistan, killing all 38 people on board, including more than two-dozen Navy SEALs.
Back on the home front, the Afghan war has largely receded from public consciousness. It rarely comes up on the presidential campaign trail.
Presidential candidate Mitt Romney released a statement in which he said he was "deeply saddened" about the latest deaths of American service members. "Each of them volunteered to serve, knowing we are at war. We owe them deep thanks, unyielding gratitude, and a responsibility to keep the memory of their lives, their virtue, and their valor alive. My thoughts and prayers are with their families and their fellow service members."