Five Dead in U.S. Military Chopper Crash

A U.S. military helicopter crashed Sunday in a mountainous area plagued by Taliban violence, killing all five American crew members. The U.S. military said there was no sign it had been shot down.

The crash of the Chinook helicopter is the third this year involving the large troop-carrying choppers that have proved essential in battling a reinvigorated insurgency in remote, largely inaccessible parts of Afghanistan.

A purported Taliban spokesman claimed the rebels shot down the CH-47 helicopter, but U.S. military spokesman Col. James Yonts said, ``Indications are there wasn't any hostile fire.''

He said the chopper was part of a convoy of aircraft in the area and other pilots did not see it come under fire.

``We are just taking a hard look at this investigation to see exactly what did cause the crash. It could be mechanical (failure),'' he said.

American ground forces reached the crash site near Daychopan in southern Zabul province - 180 miles southwest of the capital, Kabul - and were providing security for recovery operations, Yonts said.

The aircraft was returning to a U.S. base after dropping off troops for an anti-militant operation near Daychopan, the colonel said.

Daychopan has been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in recent months. Several Taliban hideouts are believed to be in mountains there.

A spokesman for Zabul's governor, Gulab Shah, said no fighting took place in the area Sunday and that the weather was fine.

The deaths bring to 195 the number of U.S. military service members killed in and around Afghanistan since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in late 2001, including 79 this year during a major upsurge in violence that has left some 1,300 people dead since March.

Despite the violence, millions of people voted a week ago in legislative elections, the final formal step toward democracy after a quarter-century of war.

Mullah Latif Hakimi, the purported Taliban spokesman, called The Associated Press to claim responsibility for downing the chopper, but offered no evidence. Information from Hakimi in the past has sometimes proven exaggerated or untrue, and his ties to the Taliban leadership cannot be verified independently.

Sunday's crash comes just a month after 17 Spanish soldiers were killed when strong winds downed their low-flying Cougar AS532 helicopter in a western desert.

In late June, suspected insurgents shot down a U.S. special forces Chinook in volatile mountains near the border with Pakistan. All 16 U.S. forces on board were killed. In April, 15 U.S. service members and three American civilians were killed when their Chinook went down in a sandstorm.

A fourth Chinook was destroyed by fire in July when it made a ``hard landing,'' but all 31 people on board managed to escape unhurt.

The Chinook - an all-purpose cargo and troop-carrying helicopter - was one of the workhorses of the Vietnam War, where it was first used, and has been in service in all wars since.

The crash comes just days after Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai questioned whether U.S. air strikes are effective and challenged the need for major foreign military operations.

Meanwhile, two suspected Taliban rebels were killed and another was injured when their vehicle hit a mine in southern Helmand province Sunday, said Mohammed Wali, a spokesman for the local government.

It was not immediately clear if the mine had been recently laid or was left over from previous fighting, Guardian Unlimited reported.

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