Nine service members were killed in a helicopter crash in southern Afghanistan early on Tuesday, according to a NATO statement, making 2010 the deadliest year of the war for international forces since the war began in 2001.
It was also the worst chopper crash for coalition forces in last four years in the rugged country where helicopters are heavily used to transport military troops spread over mountainous terrain with few roads.
Violence is at its worst across Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001, with military and civilian casualties at record levels.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said the cause of the crash was “under investigation,” adding: “There are no reports of enemy fire in the area.”
One ISAF service member, an Afghan soldier and a U.S. civilian were wounded in the crash and were taken to hospital for treatment, ISAF said in a statement.
The helicopter came down in the Daychopan district of Zabul province in the Taliban stronghold of southern Afghanistan, said provincial spokesman Mohammad Jan Rasoulyar. “We don’t know the cause of the crash or the number of casualties,” he said.
Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi claimed the insurgents shot the helicopter down and killed “more than 9 foreign soldiers”. The nationalities of the service members who died have not been released.
“I was sitting taking my tea,” said Nakeemullah, 20, who works transporting livestock in the area. “I heard noise and I went outside to see what happened.
Nakeemullah, who uses only one name, also added: “I saw a lot of smoke in the sky. It was far away for me, but I could see that it was a helicopter and it went down on the backside of the mountain where I couldn’t see.”
The incident brings to 529 the number of foreign troops killed this year, according to the iCasualties.com website which tallies deaths, surpassing the previous record of 521 deaths in 2009.
The crash came soon after one of the deadliest days of the year on Saturday, when the Taliban launched scores of attacks across the country in a bid to disrupt a parliamentary election.
The election was being closely watched in Washington ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama’s planned war strategy review in December, which will likely examine the pace and scale of U.S. troop withdrawals after nine years of war.
Obama’s Democrats also face difficult mid-term Congressional elections in November amid sagging public support for the war and record troop casualties in Afghanistan will likely only make their task harder.
Few details were immediately available about the crash in Afghanistan’s volatile south, the heartland of the Taliban.
U.S. and British troops form the largest contingents in the area. However, there was no immediate indication of the nationality of the dead troops and a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said more information would be released later.
At least 2,097 foreign troops have been killed since the war began, about 60 percent of them American. Violence in recent months has soared to its highest levels since the Taliban were toppled by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.
The Taliban have spread the insurgency out of their heartland in the south and east into once relatively peaceful areas in the north and west.
At the same time, foreign troops have been increasing the reach and scale of operations to seek out the Taliban, especially in Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south, and U.S. commanders have warned of more tough times ahead.
The United States and NATO have increased to almost 150,000 the number troops fighting a growing Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan, supporting about 300,000 Afghan security forces. Obama ordered in an extra 30,000 troops late last year, the last units of which arrived this month.
Saturday’s flawed election, in which widespread fraud and violence were reported, has only underscored the challenges facing U.S. and other NATO nations as they decide how long they will keep troops in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s endemic corruption has long been a point of friction between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Western allies. Transparency Internation ranks Afghanistan as one of the world’s two most corrupt countries, ahead only of Somalia.
Washington believes graft weakens the central government and its ability to build up institutions like the Afghan security forces, which in turn determines when troops will leave.
Barack Obama has issued a deadline of mid-2011 for United States forces to begin drawing down, adding a sense of urgency to such tasks as training of Afghan forces so they can take over responsibility for the country’s security.
Dutch troops ended their mission in August and several European and other nations are under growing public pressure to bring their troops home.
Germany, the third-largest ISAF contributor with 4,400 soldiers, aims to start a pullout next year. Denmark hopes to withdraw many of its 700 troops by 2015 and Canada will pull out its nearly 3,000-strong force next year.
Before this latest event, the worst helicopter crash for coalition forces was in May 2006, a Chinook crashed attempting a nighttime landing on a small mountaintop in eastern Kunar province, killing 10 U.S. soldiers.
That followed on a 2005 crash in Kunar that killed 16 Americans. In February 2007, a Chinook helicopter crashed in Zabul, killing eight U.S. personnel.