U.S. military helicopter crashes in Afghanistan, killing nine, including four Americans

A U.S. military helicopter smashed into a flat desert in southeastern Afghanistan on Wednesday, killing the four American crew and five others, officials said. It was the deadliest military crash here since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom.

An Afghan police official said the death toll could be higher, and that all aboard appeared to be American. However, the U.S. military provided no details of the five passengers' identity.

A U.S. spokeswoman suggested severe weather brought down the CH-47 Chinook near Ghazni city, 125 kilometers (80 miles) southwest of the capital, Kabul, as it returned from a mission in the militant-plagued south.

"I have confirmed nine fatalities," Lt. Cindy Moore said. "Indications are it was bad weather and that there were no survivors."

Moore said the transport helicopter was flying back from a "routine mission" to the main American base at Bagram when controllers lost radio contact. A second Chinook made it safely back to the sprawling base north of Kabul.

Abdul Rahman Sarjang, the chief of police in Ghazni, said the helicopter came down at about 2:30 p.m. (1200 GMT) near a brick factory 5 kilometers (3 miles) outside the city and burst into flames. U.S. troops rushed to cordon the area and look for any survivors, he said.

"We collected nine bodies, though the Americans told us there were 13 people in total on board," Sarjang told The Associated Press by mobile telephone from the crash site. "They were all wearing American uniforms and they were all dead."

Sarjang said the weather was cloudy with strong winds and that witnesses claimed one of the helicopter's two rotors looked damaged before it hit the ground. But he had no explanation for why the aircraft crashed in an area of desert.

He said he saw no sign of enemy fire and militants issued no immediate claim of responsibility.

Afghan television aired footage showing two Afghan policemen peering into the still-burning wreckage of the plane as it lay tangled on a patch of flat, featureless ground.

According to U.S. Department of Defense statistics, at least 122 American soldiers had died before Wednesday's incident in and around Afghanistan since Operation Enduring Freedom, the U.S.-led war on terrorism, began after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Accidents have proven almost as deadly as attacks from Taliban-led insurgents, including a string of helicopter crashes and explosions caused by mines and munitions left over from the country's long wars.

The previous worst incident in Afghanistan was an accidental explosion at an arms dump in Ghazni province that killed eight American soldiers in January last year.

Most recently, four U.S. soldiers died when a land mine exploded under their vehicle south of Kabul on March 26.

Last November, six Americans _ three civilian crew members and three U.S. soldiers _ died when their plane crashed in the Hindu Kush mountains. The military's last fatal helicopter crash occurred a month earlier when a pilot was killed in the west of the country.

About 17,000 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan battling a stubborn Taliban-led insurgency and training a new Afghan army.

The top U.S. commander here, Lt. Gen. David Barno, told AP on Tuesday that the military would also now train Afghan police and provide intelligence to Afghan forces battling the country's rampant drug industry.

Barno said the size of the U.S. force would be reviewed after Afghan parliamentary elections in September.

While U.S. forces focus on the south and east, the Afghan capital has also been shaken by a string of security incidents.

Kabul police said Wednesday they had arrested a man wanted for questioning over the March 7 killing of a British development worker as well as the kidnapping of three U.N. workers last year. The three were seized in October and released unharmed a month later.

The suspect was seized after a gunfight in the city in which a taxi driver was killed and two police officers injured, police chief Gen. Akram Khakrezwal told AP.

STEPHEN GRAHAM, Associated Press Writer

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