updated 9/2/2006 3:00:54 PM ET 2006-09-02T19:00:54

An airplane crashed in southern Afghanistan Saturday, killing 14 British troops, in the worst loss of life for the NATO-led security force since it began its mission to tame insurgents in the volatile region a month ago, witnesses and officials said.

A purported Taliban spokesman claimed its militia shot the plane down in Kandahar province with a Stinger missile, but British Defense Secretary Des Browne said the crash appeared to be “a terrible accident.” A NATO statement said the plane had reported a technical problem before crashing.

Meanwhile, clashes across the volatile south killed 13 Afghan policemen, at least 13 suspected Taliban and one civilian, officials said Saturday. An upsurge in Taliban attacks has sparked the deadliest upsurge in violence in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001.

The British Defense Ministry said the crashed plane was a Nimrod MR2 maritime patrol aircraft—a long-range plane that can carry up to 25 people and has a crew of 13. It is often used for reconnaissance and communications over land.

The dead included 12 Royal Air Force personnel, a Royal Marine and an army soldier.

Abdul Manan, a witness in Chalaghor village, about 12 miles west of the city of Kandahar, said the plane crashed about 100 yards from his home, and pieces of wreckage landed nearby.

He reported seeing a small fire at the back of the plane before it hit the earth with a huge explosion that “shook the whole village.”

Afghan and NATO forces were conducting a major military operation against insurgents Saturday in Panjwayi district where Chalaghor village is located, but Manan said the scene of the fighting was centered about six miles from the village. Earlier Saturday, authorities had ordered all traffic off the roads in the district, warning that any vehicle “will be targeted” in case it was carrying Taliban militants.

‘No indication’ of hostile fire
Maj. Scott Lundy, another spokesman for the NATO-led force that took command of security in southern Afghanistan on Aug. 1 from a U.S.-led coalition, said “there was no indication of an enemy attack.”

Manan said “American” helicopters landed around the burning plane wreckage and kept onlookers away. He said he could see American soldiers picking up body parts.

Shortly after the crash, a purported spokesman for the Taliban, Abdul Khaliq, claimed responsibility, but it was impossible to independently verify the claim.

“We used a Stinger missile to shoot down the aircraft,” he said in a phone call to The Associated Press.

‘A terrible accident’
In London, Browne said that “at this stage all the indications are that this was a terrible accident and not the result of hostile action.”

Britain has nearly 4,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province, which neighbors Kandahar, as part of the NATO-led force.

Before Saturday, 22 British soldiers had died in the country since November 2001, 17 of them in March when the NATO force moved into Helmand, the hub of Afghanistan’s world-leading heroin industry.

The south is the heartland of the former Taliban regime, which was ousted by a U.S.-led invasion following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

Fighting toll tops 1,600
According to an AP count of figures provided by Afghan, NATO and U.S. officials, more than 1,600 people, mostly militants, have died in violence in the past four months.

Officials reported a flurry of attacks on Friday and Saturday across the south.

In the deadliest incident, insurgents attacked a police checkpoint on Friday, killing five policemen and wounding seven others in the Grieshk district of Helmand province, said Ghulam Muhiddin, the Helmand governor’s spokesman. Police returned fire and killed three Taliban and wounded two.

Muhiddin said the Taliban abducted four other police, and hundreds of police were hunting for them Saturday.

Militants ambushed a convoy killing four police in southwestern Nimroz province late Friday, said Nimroz Gov. Ghulam Dasthaqir.  Police returned fire, killing three militants, he said.

Four Taliban were killed late Friday in an exchange of fire with police in the Garamsair district of the southern Zabul province, and elsewhere in the province, police raided a Taliban hide-out, killing three insurgents died, officials said.

In southwestern Farah province, a Taliban ambush on Saturday killed four more police and the wife of one of the dead officers, said provincial police chief Syed Agha Saqib. The woman’s two-year old son survived unhurt.

In the east, an assailant driving an explosives-laden Toyota sedan attacked a convoy of Afghan and U.S.-led coalition forces in the Bati Kot district of Nangarhar province, said provincial police spokesman Ghafor Khan.

He said three people were wounded—one coalition solider, an Afghan soldier and an Afghan translator. The unidentified attacker died.

Coalition spokeswoman Lt. Tamara Lawrence confirmed that a coalition soldier and an Afghan soldier had been wounded, but said it was a roadside bomb.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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