A series of helicopter crashes killed 14 Americans in insurgent-wracked Afghanistan today, the US military said. It was one of the deadliest days of the war for US troops.
In the first crash, a chopper went down in the west of the country after leaving the scene of a firefight with insurgents, killing 10 Americans — seven troops and three civilians working for the government. Eleven American troops, one US civilian and 14 Afghans were also injured.
In a separate incident in the south, two other US choppers collided while in flight, killing four American troops and wounding two more, the military said.
US authorities have ruled out hostile fire in the collision but have not given a cause for the other fatal crash in the west. Taliban spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmedi claimed Taliban fighters shot down a helicopter in northwest Badghis province's Darabam district. It was impossible to verify the claim and unclear if he was referring to the same incident.
US forces also reported the death of two other American troops a day earlier: one in a bomb attack in the east, and another who died of wounds sustained in an insurgent attack in the same region. The deaths bring to at least 46 the number of US troops who have been killed in October.
Earlier this month, insurgents killed eight American troops in an attack on a pair of isolated US outposts in the eastern village of Kamdesh near the Pakistan border. That was the heaviest US loss of life in a single battle since July 2008, when nine American soldiers were killed in a raid on an outpost in Wanat in the same province.
"These separate tragedies today underscore the risks our forces and our partners face every day," Col. Wayne Shanks, a spokesman for the Nato-led coalition, said Monday. "Each and every death is a tremendous loss for the family and friends of each service member and civilian. Our grief is compounded when we have such a significant loss on one day."
This has been the deadliest year for international and US forces since the 2001 invasion to oust the Taliban. Fighting spiked around the presidential vote in August, and 51 US soldiers died that month — the deadliest for American forces in the eight-year war.
The deaths come as US officials debate whether to send tens of thousands more troops to the country and the Afghan government scrambles to organize a Nov. 7 runoff election between President Hamid Karzai and his top challenger from an August vote that was sullied by massive ballot-rigging. President Barack Obama's administration is hoping the runoff will produce a legitimate government. Another flawed election would cast doubt on the wisdom of sending more troops to support a weak government tainted by fraud.
US military spokeswoman Elizabeth Mathias said coalition forces had launched an operation to recover the wreckage of the helicopter that was downed in the west.
She said the aircraft was leaving the site of a joint operation with Afghan forces when it went down.
The joint force had "searched a suspected compound believed to harbor insurgents conducting activities related to narcotics trafficking in western Afghanistan," Nato said in a statement. "During the operation, insurgent forces engaged the joint force and more than a dozen enemy fighters were killed in the ensuing firefight.
Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium — the raw ingredient in heroin — and the illicit drug trade is a major source of funding for Taliban and other insurgent groups.
On Sunday, Karzai and his rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, both ruled out a power-sharing deal before the runoff, saying the second round of balloting must be held as planned to bolster democracy in this war-ravaged country.
Meanwhile, security forces in Kabul fired automatic rifles into the air for a second day Monday to contain hundreds of stone-throwing university students angered over the alleged desecration of a Muslim holy book, the Quran, by US troops during an operation two weeks ago in Wardak province. Firetrucks were also brought in to push back protesters with water cannons. Police said several officers were injured in the mayhem.
US and Afghan authorities have denied any such desecration and insist that the Taliban are spreading the rumor to stir up public anger. The rumor has sparked similar protests in Wardak and Khost provinces.
On Sunday, the students in the capital burned Obama in effigy and chanted slogans such as "down with Americans, down with Israel" as they marched from Kabul University to the parliament building, where riot police turned them back.