Dozens of Afghan police, Taliban killed, NATO copter crashes


Kabul : More than 30 Taliban fighters and at least 16 Afghan policemen were killed in separate incidents as a NATO helicopter came down possibly by Taliban fire in southern Afghanistan, killing seven on board, officials said Thursday.

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Taliban ambushed a police convoy in Shah Joy district of southern Zabul province Thursday morning, killing 16 policemen, wounding another six, interior ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary said.

He said that ten suspected Taliban were also killed in the fighting that lasted for several hours in Shah Hussain Khail area of the district as the police convoy was on its way to capital Kabul.

However, Abdul Ghafar Safi, provincial police chief of Zabul province gave a lower police death toll.

Safi said that ten policemen were killed and six others wounded. He said that a group of army soldiers and police forces followed the militants as they were fleeing from the area, killing eleven Taliban fighters.

In another incident, more than 20 militants were killed in a joint Afghan-NATO operation, which started Thursday morning in Shaly area of Sangin district in Helmand province, Defence Ministry spokesman General Zahir Azimi said.

Azimi said that international forces bombed several Taliban compounds.

Taliban insurgents claimed to have shot down a NATO transport helicopter that the military confirmed went down in southern Afghanistan with the loss of seven foreign soldiers.

Five crewmembers and two military passengers died when the Chinook CH-47 went down Wednesday night during a mission in the heavily fought-over Helmand province, according to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

"There may have been enemy fire that brought down the helicopter," said ISAF spokeswoman Lt Col Angela Billings. "We are saddened, but not deterred."

A military unit dispatched to the crash scene near the town of Kajaki was ambushed, prompting the ground forces to call in an airstrike to eliminate enemy positions.

Qari Mohammad Yousif Ahmadi, a purported Taliban spokesman, said forces belonging to the fundamentalist Islamic movement downed one of two helicopters using an anti-aircraft rocket as they flew over the area.

He said in a telephone interview from an undisclosed location that the chopper caught fire in the air and then crashed, killing 35 soldiers on board. Taliban claims of casualties are often heavily overstated.

The CH-47 Chinook has tandem rotors and can carry 33 troops or more than seven tons of freight.

Ahmadi also said Taliban forces ambushed NATO ground troops who were moving toward the crash site but could not provide any further details on the numbers of casualties from the ensuing battle.

NATO aircraft bombarded the area after the ambush, he said, "but our forces had already retreated to a safe zone."

The ISAF said one Afghan civilian was injured by small arms fire after the crash.

In accordance with NATO policy, the ISAF did not immediately reveal the nationality of the casualties. But a NATO military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said five of the dead personnel were Americans.

The British Ministry of Defence confirmed the loss of one soldier, while the other victim was thought to be a member of the Canadian military.

The statement said that the ongoing operation, dubbed as "Lastay Kulang" or "axe-handle" was launched in March and the chopper had just delivered troops as part of the operation when it came down.

Helicopter crashes have been rare in Afghanistan. In February, a US Chinook crashed in the southern Zabul province, killing eight US servicemen. The Taliban claimed responsibility for downing it but US officials ruled out any hostile fire.

Another US helicopter crashed in eastern Kunar province in 2005, and officials confirmed a rocket-propelled grenade downed it. The crash left 16 US soldiers dead.

Helmand in recent months saw some of the heaviest fighting in Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted by US-led forces in late 2001. The Defence Ministry in Kabul said that dozens of Taliban fighters were killed in fresh clashes in the province.

There are currently 37,000 soldiers, including about 14,000 Americans, engaged in counter insurgency operations in the country under NATO command.

Another 12,000 US troops in the separate US-led coalition train the Afghan army and conduct anti-terrorism operations.