Afghan children retrieved souvenir-sized pieces of a helicopter shot down by the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan where witnesses on Thursday described seeing the chopper burst into flames and break apart before falling from the sky, killing 30 U.S. troops and eight Afghans.
Coalition forces finished recovering the victims' remains and big sections of the wreckage. Yet small, twisted pieces of the Chinook CH-47 remain scattered on both sides of a slow-flowing river in Wardak province where it crashed before dawn Saturday.
Farhad, a local resident, told Associated Press Television News that the helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade fired from a nearby knoll as it was preparing to land.
"As soon as it was hit, it started burning," he said, standing in a field still littered with small pieces of the chopper, including a part of a scorched rifle stamped "Made in Germany" and a piece of charred paper with typewritten first aid instructions.
"After it started burning, it crashed. It came down in three pieces," he added. "We could see it burning from our homes."
Many of the victims' bodies were badly mangled and burned, said Farhad, who like many Afghans uses only one name.
The crash about 60 miles southwest of Kabul was the deadliest single loss for U.S. forces in the nearly 10-year Afghan war.
The crash comes amid fears that the country is far from stable even though U.S. and NATO forces have begun to leave Afghanistan. U.S. military officials have tried to counter those fears, saying that while the downing of the Chinook was a tragic setback, one crash will not determine the course of the war.
The victims included 17 members of the elite Navy SEALs, five Naval Special Warfare personnel who support the SEALs, three Air Force Special Operations personnel, an Army helicopter crew of five, seven Afghan commandos and an Afghan interpreter.
Debris burning on both sides of river
Gul Agha, another resident of Tangi Valley, also said that after the helicopter crashed, parts were burning on either side of the Tangi River. Some of the debris also ended up on a nearby hillside, he said.
"When the helicopter came at night, the Taliban were hiding in the bushes around the area," he said.
He said coalition forces worked several days to remove victims' remains. Then they blew up sections of the helicopter into smaller pieces, loaded them on trucks and took them from the site, he said.
Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said Wednesday that F-16 fighter jets killed the insurgents responsible for the crash. But the military provided few details to back up the claim.
The U.S.-led coalition has also said the helicopter was apparently shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade. But Allen said the military will investigate whether other causes contributed to the crash.
Fear of retribution
Alam Gul, chief of the local council in Sayd Abad district where the crash occurred, said many villagers were up at the time because it is the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims fast during the day, break fast in the evening and then get up and eat again around 2 a.m. for sustenance to make it through the day.
He said people in the Tangi Valley worry that the U.S. will take revenge and bomb their villages. He insisted that no major Taliban figures were living or hiding out in the area, where many locals don't side with the U.S.-led coalition or the Afghan government.
"The foreigners are guests, but what has changed in 10 years?" Gul said residents ask. "Yes, you are our guests, but you have done a lot of bad things."
He said frequent night raids in and around his district have angered local residents, who are offended by knocks on their doors in the middle of the night when families are sleeping.
Coalition forces left a combat outpost in Tangi, less than a mile from the crash site, in the spring. They took their expensive equipment, but left other items, like freezers, Gul said. The Taliban retrieved the items and had a yard sale, he said. Afghans from the surrounding area came to shop. Then, instead of occupying the outpost, Gul said the Taliban booby-trapped it with bombs.
In other violence in Afghanistan, a roadside bomb in the south killed five NATO troops Thursday, the U.S.-led coalition said. Another service member died Wednesday in a roadside bomb and five Afghan policemen were killed when their checkpoint was attacked by Taliban insurgents, the coalition and Afghan police said.
The latest deaths, which raised to 374 the number of international forces killed so far this year, underscored the tenuous nature of the war.
Associated Press writer Amir Shah in Kabul contributed to this report.