Video: Deadly hours in Afghanistan

  1. Closed captioning of: Deadly hours in Afghanistan

    >>> now.

    >>> good evening. i'm ann curry in for brian williams , who tonight is traveling to afghanistan . and we begin with somber news from afghanistan . today was the deadliest day for americans there in four years. in two separate helicopter crashes , 14 americans were killed, some of them civilians. ten were killed in a crash in western afghanistan , four died, when two helicopters crashed -- rather collided in the south. our chief foreign correspondent richard engel has both covered in our report tonight from kabul. richard?

    >> reporter: good evening, ann. the u.s. military believes that the two crashes appear to have been unrelated accidents. we just returned from a base in western afghanistan where one of those helicopter missions was launched. last-minute preparations. afghan troops run through drills on a remote base in western afghanistan , so they'll be ready for a nighttime air assault just hours away. the target is a suspected drug and weapons trafficker who supplies militants, including the taliban. just after dark sunday night the troops head out. nbc news is on the base as u.s. and afghan forces fill two large transport helicopters, but this mission will be one of the deadliest in western afghanistan since the war began. as american and afghan forces land on their target, they're engaged by militants. the troops believe they killed 14 in a fire fight. but as the trooped head back to base, one of the two helicopters crashes. seven u.s. servicemen and three american civilians are killed. the u.s. drug enforcement administration identified the three as its agents, 26 other afghans and americans are injured. u.s. troops had been planning this mission for a month, but commanders said they knew it would be risky since american forces were pushing into an area where they hadn't been in years. and they didn't have as many helicopters as they hoped. in a statement about the incident today, the taliban claimed to have shot down the helicopter. a u.s. military spokesman says the crash is still under investigation.

    >> we don't have any indication that it was due to hostile fire. we don't know exactly what did happen, but we think that it was not due to any types of enemy fire .

    >> reporter: helicopters are the main transport in much of afghanistan . they're especially important out here in the west where u.s. troops are spread thin. but every trip has a risk. in southern afghanistan , two more helicopters today collide in midair, four more american servicemen are killed. the u.s. military said the crashes would not slow the pace of operations here or the use of helicopter transport. ann?

    >> all right, richard engel tonight. richard, thanks for your reporting on this story.

    >>> we turn now to iraq,

updated 10/26/2009 3:56:00 PM ET 2009-10-26T19:56:00

Helicopter crashes killed 14 Americans on Monday — 11 troops and three drug agents — in the deadliest day for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan in more than four years. The deaths came as President Barack Obama prepared to meet his national security team for a sixth full-scale conference on the future of the troubled war.

The casualties also marked the Drug Enforcement Administration's first deaths in Afghanistan since it began operations here in 2005. 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 insurgent groups.

In the deadliest crash, a helicopter went down in the west of the country after leaving the scene of a firefight, killing 10 Americans — seven troops and three Drug Enforcement Administration agents. Eleven American troops, one U.S. civilian and 14 Afghans were also injured.

In a separate incident, two U.S. Marine helicopters — one UH-1 and an AH-1 Cobra — collided in flight before sunrise over the southern province of Helmand, killing four American troops and wounding two more, Marine spokesman Maj. Bill Pelletier said.

It was the heaviest single-day loss of life since June 28, 2005, when 16 U.S. troops on a special forces helicopter died when their MH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down by insurgents. The casualties also mark the first DEA deaths in Afghanistan since it began operations there in 2005.

In an address to Navy and Marine Corps personnel Monday at Naval Air Station Jacksonville in Florida, President Barack Obama paid tribute to the helicopter victims and their families and friends.

“Like all those who give their lives in service to America, they were doing their duty and they were doing this nation proud.

“They were willing to risk their lives, in this case, to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for al-Qaida and its extremist allies. And today, they gave their lives … to protect ours. Now, it is our duty, as a nation, to keep their memory alive in our hearts and to carry on their work.”

Taliban claim
U.S. 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.

Military spokeswoman Elizabeth Mathias said hostile fire was unlikely because the troops were not receiving fire when the helicopter took off.

NATO said the helicopter was returning from a joint operation that targeted insurgents involved in "narcotics trafficking in western Afghanistan."

"During the operation, insurgent forces engaged the joint force and more than a dozen enemy fighters were killed in the ensuing firefight," a NATO statement said.

Video: Engel: The situation in Afghanistan U.S. forces also reported the death of two other American service members 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 47 the number of U.S. service members who have been killed in October.

This has been the deadliest year for international and U.S. forces since the 2001 invasion to oust the Taliban. Fighting spiked around the presidential vote in August, and 51 U.S. soldiers died that month — the deadliest for American forces in the eight-year war.

The latest deaths came as Obama prepared to meet his national security team for a sixth full-scale conference on the future of the troubled war.

Obama is debating whether to send tens of thousands more troops to the country, while the Afghan government is rushing to hold a Nov. 7 runoff election between President Hamid Karzai and challenger Abdullah Abdullah after it was determined that the August election depended on fraudulent votes.

The administration is hoping the runoff will produce a legitimate government. In Washington, Obama was to meet with his national security team Monday in the White House Situation Room.

Abdullah on Monday called for election commission chairman Azizullah Lodin to be replaced within five days, saying he has "no credibility."

Lodin has denied accusations he is biased in favor of Karzai, and the election commission's spokesman has already said Lodin cannot be replaced by either side.

‘Minimum conditions’
Abdullah made the demand in a news conference during which he spelled out what he said were "minimum conditions" for holding a fair second round of voting, including the firing of any workers implicated in fraud and the suspension of several ministers he said had campaigned for Karzai in the first round before the official campaigning period began.

Abdullah did not say what would happen if his demands were not met. "I reserve my reaction if we are faced with that unfortunate situation," he said.

Abdullah said he was willing to meet with Karzai to discuss the conditions, but repeated that he would not discuss a coalition government as some have suggested, nor compromise on his recommendations out of concerns that they are difficult to implement.

"These are not impossible things," Abdullah said, stressing that his team had pared them down to what they considered essential to a fair vote and possible to put in place before the runoff.

Another flawed election would cast doubt on the wisdom of sending in more U.S. troops.

With less than two weeks to go until the vote, disagreements have emerged between the U.N. and the Afghans on how to conduct the balloting.

Lodin said the commission hopes to open all 23,960 polling stations from the first round. The U.N. wants to open only 16,000 stations to cut down on the number of "ghost polling stations" that never opened but were used to stuff ballot boxes.

Elsewhere Monday, Nangarhar province Gov. Gul Agha Sherzai survived an assassination attempt after a gunman fired automatic weapons at his convoy in Jalalabad, according to his spokesman Ahmad Zia Abdulzai. Sherzai's bodyguards killed the gunman, as well as another attacker wearing a suicide vest and carrying grenades.

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 Islam's holy book, the Quran, by U.S. troops during an operation two weeks ago in Wardak province. Fire trucks were also brought in to push back protesters with water cannons. Police said several officers were injured in the mayhem.

U.S. 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. 

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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