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17 feared dead in apparent shootdown of helicopter in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON—There were no confirmed survivors from a CH-47 Chinook helicopter that crashed Tuesday while ferrying U.S. special operations troops to a firefight in eastern Afghanistan, apparently shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade, Pentagon officials said Wednesday.

The helicopter was dispatched after an American team on the ground radioed for reinforcements, according to the Afghan Defense Ministry. Seventeen people were aboard, including Navy SEALs, a Pentagon official said.

All aboard were feared dead, but it was unclear if there were survivors because bad weather and rough mountainous terrain were hampering recovery efforts, officials said. Members of the team on the ground were missing, said Pentagon officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss an operation that involved Special Forces troops and remains under investigation.

If the troops are confirmed to have died, it would be the heaviest loss of American lives in a single attack in Afghanistan.

At his nomination hearing to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Wednesday, Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace said it "appears to be a shootdown of one our special operations helicopters."

"We believe it was a rocket-propelled grenade, but we're not 100 percent sure," he said.

The helicopter was ferrying the troops into a mountainous area in Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan as part of Operation Red Wing, which was aimed at routing Taliban and al-Qaida militants in the region. The area is close to the Pakistan border and has been the scene of frequent clashes between U.S. forces and militants.

Reports from Pakistan quoted a Taliban spokesman as saying rebel fighters had shot down the helicopter, but military officials at the Pentagon said that couldn't be confirmed.

The crash was the second of a Vietnam-era Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan this year. Fifteen U.S. servicemen and three American contractors were killed in April when their Chinook crashed during a sandstorm near Bagram Air Base, headquarters for the U.S.-led coalition.

The latest incident comes as U.S. troops and Afghan government forces have stepped up operations in southern and eastern Afghanistan as part of an effort to disrupt Taliban and al-Qaida militants, who officials say seek to destabilize the country before its national assembly elections, scheduled for September.

The U.S. and Afghan forces have been fighting a low-level counterinsurgency campaign for more than three years, mostly along the country's border with Pakistan's tribal areas. Clashes have spiked in recent months, leaving 29 U.S. troops and hundreds of alleged militants dead. Last week, the military reported that it had killed more than 70 rebels in airstrikes during an operation near a village called Deh Chopan in southern Afghanistan.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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