Four foreign service members of the NATO-led alliance were killed in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday when their helicopter was shot down by insurgent fire, bringing to 23 the number of foreign troops killed this week.
AFP - Taliban militants shot down a NATO helicopter in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday killing four US servicemen and bringing to 23 the number of foreign soldiers killed in escalating violence this week.
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) helicopter came down in Helmand province, a stronghold of Taliban fighters trying to topple the Western-backed government and eject the 130,000 US-led foreign troops in Afghanistan.
"The helicopter was brought down by hostile fire," a military spokesman said, announcing the toll. Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Breasseale confirmed that the dead soldiers were American.
Yousuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, telephoned AFP from an undisclosed location to claim responsibility, saying: "We brought it down with a rocket. It crashed in the Sangin district bazaar."
In a separate incident, at least 39 people were killed and 73 wounded in an explosion at a wedding in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar, a senior official in the province told AFP.
Twenty-three NATO soldiers have died since Sunday, including 10 on Monday, the deadliest day in combat for US-led forces in Afghanistan in two years, with seven Americans, two Australians and a French soldier killed.
According to an AFP tally, 253 foreign soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan this year. Last year was the deadliest yet, with 520 killed.
Much of southern Afghanistan is blighted by the nearly nine-year insurgency, now in its deadliest phase. US and NATO troops are building up a campaign to flush the militants out of Kandahar city.
"It's been a tough week," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said in Washington, adding it was too early to say whether the downing of the helicopter, the first by hostile fire in nearly a year, marked a change in insurgent tactics or weaponry.
The crash brought to five the number of NATO soldiers killed in the south on Wednesday, after London said a British soldier had died in an explosion elsewhere in Helmand.
In the east, three policemen were killed when their vehicle struck a bomb in Ghazni province, said Khyalbaz Sherzai, the provincial police chief.
Despite the mounting casualties, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in London he expected to see signs of progress in the counter-insurgency strategy "by the end of the year".
NATO, US and Afghan soldiers are preparing their biggest offensive yet against the Taliban in Kandahar, with total foreign troop numbers in Afghanistan set to peak at 150,000 by August.
Gates said the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, was "pretty confident that by the end of the year he will be able to point to sufficient progress that validates the strategy and also justifies continuing to work at this".
But he cautioned that there were "no illusions" about quick victories and that a "tough summer" lay ahead.
Gates said the United States and its allies were under pressure from war-weary voters to show success: "All of us, for our publics, are going to have to show by the end of the year that our strategy is on the right track and making some headway."
The US military has warned that casualties will inevitably mount during the increased operations.
"I think you have to keep in mind that our operational tempo is at an all-time high," the Pentagon spokesman, Whitman, said.
"We have more forces in Afghanistan, ISAF and US forces, than at any other time. The level of activity is high, so as we conduct our operations and engage with the enemy, the opportunities for hostile contact are going to go up."
The Taliban promised last month a new campaign of attacks on diplomats, lawmakers and foreign forces. It claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on a landmark meeting last week convened by President Hamid Karzai to drum up support for plans to give jobs and money to militants who lay down arms.
A senior US general in Kandahar told AFP this week that parts of the NATO operation in the province had been delayed by two or three months while an Afghan army brigade is readied for operations.
"There is a little Afghan army brigade that's going to be established coming in now, but it's probably going to be two or three months away before they can do significant operations partnering with the brigade of the 101st Airborne division," said Brigadier General Ben Hodges, head of US forces in the south.
Date created : 2010-06-09