America's black day: Bin Laden hit team troops shot out of sky by Taliban
- 31 dead after rocket-propelled grenade destroys Chinook helicopter
- News comes as USA loses gold-plated AAA credit rating
- Deadliest single incident since Afghan war began in 2001
- President Obama tells shell-shocked Americans of 'extraordinary sacrifice'
- Afghan president sends condolences to Obama
More than 20 US Navy Seals from the elite unit that killed Osama Bin Laden have died after their helicopter was shot down by insurgents in Afghanistan.
They were among 31 American Special Forces troops and seven Afghan soldiers who were killed when a rocket-propelled grenade destroyed their Chinook helicopter.
The terrible development came on the day when Americans were absorbing the shock news that for the first time in its history the United States had lost its gold-plated AAA credit rating.
Gunned down: A twin-rotor Chinook, same as the one pictured here in Afghanistan in June, was brought down after a Nato operation in an area where insurgents were gathering
Rating agency Standard & Poor’s said it was marking the US down a notch to AA+ because the deficit reduction plan passed by Congress last week did not go far enough to stabilise the country’s debt situation.
According to US intelligence officials, 23 Seals who killed Bin Laden at his compound in Pakistan in May had recently returned to Afghanistan from their base in North Carolina.
It was reported last night that the Seals who died in the helicopter crash were not among the 23 who killed Bin Laden. However, they were members of the same 120-strong Seal Team Six and would have trained alongside and been close friends with those who carried out the Bin Laden raid.
It was not clear if the Taliban had deliberately targeted the helicopter as an act of revenge. But its shooting down is bound to be greeted in many parts of the Arab world as terrible vengeance for the death of the Al Qaeda leader and an enormous blow to the international standing of America, already badly shaken by the financial meltdown.
Dangerous territory: The helicopter crashed in the Tangi Valley in the volatile Wardak province, which borders the Taliban stronghold province of Kabul
Vulnerable: Slow-moving transporter craft like the Chinook face massive risks in eastern Afghanistan
Reports suggested that seven members of the Afghan National Army, one dog handler, an interpreter and an unknown number of crew were also on board the downed helicopter. Friday night’s attack is the deadliest single incident since the Afghan war began in 2001.
It was also the highest one-day death toll for US Navy Special Warfare personnel since the Second World War. In 2005, 16 Navy Seals and US Army special forces troops died when their helicopter was shot down as they tried to rescue four comrades under attack from the Taliban.
The Chinook involved in Friday’s attack – a US twin-engined helicopter mainly used to transport troops – was hit by a shoulder-held grenade as it returned from a night raid on a militant gathering in the Tangi Valley in Wardak province, west of Kabul.
Unforgiving terrain: The Taliban-infested, rocky valleys of the Wardak province where the helipcopter was brought down
The Tangi Valley, dubbed ‘Death Valley’, is known for being one of the most hostile corridors in Afghanistan. The volatile Wardak province is an infamous insurgent stronghold.
US soldiers have frequently been attacked there, and an entire Soviet division was ambushed and destroyed in the valley in the Eighties.
The Special Forces unit in the Bin Laden operation, Seal Team Six – known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group – has around 300 members, of whom 120 are commandos. The rest are communications and specialist support troops.
US sources said the troops were being flown by a crew of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. The Taliban claimed they downed the helicopter with rocket fire and that wreckage was strewn at the scene.
Nato confirmed the overnight crash took place and that there ‘was enemy activity in the area.’
Return trip: 23 Seals who killedBin Laden in his Pakistan compound in May had recently returned to Afghanistan from their base in North Carolina
But a Nato spokesman said it was still investigating the cause and conducting a recovery operation at the site. It did not release details or casualty figures. ‘We are in the process of accessing the facts,’ said US Air Force Captain Justin Brockhoff.
President Obama mourned the deaths of the American troops as he announced the news to the US public. He said in a statement that the crash served as a reminder of the ‘extraordinary sacrifices’ being made by the US military and its families. He said he also mourned ‘the Afghans who died alongside our troops’.
Afghan president Hamid Karzai expressed his condolences to Mr Obama.
With its steep mountain ranges, providing shelter for militants armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers, eastern Afghanistan is hazardous terrain for military aircraft.
Large, slow-moving air transport carriers such as the CH-47 Chinook are particularly vulnerable, often forced to ease their way through sheer valleys where insurgents can achieve more level lines of fire from mountainsides.
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Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement that Taliban fighters downed the helicopter during a ‘heavy raid’ in Sayd Abad.
He said Nato attacked a house in Sayd Abad where insurgent fighters were gathering. During the battle, the fighters shot down the helicopter, killing 31 Americans and seven Afghans, he said, adding that eight insurgents were ‘martyred’ in the fight.
There have been at least 17 coalition and Afghan aircraft crashes in Afghanistan this year.
Most of the crashes were attributed to pilot errors, weather conditions or mechanical failures. But the coalition has confirmed that at least one CH-47F Chinook helicopter was hit by a rocket propelled grenade on July 25.
Two coalition crew members were injured in that attack.
Meanwhile, in the southern Helmand province, an Afghan government official said yesterday that Nato troops attacked a house and inadvertently killed eight members of a family, including women and children.
Mystery: It was reported those who died were not among the 23 Seals who killed Bin Laden
Nato, however, said that Taliban fighters fired rocket-propelled grenades and directed small-arms fire at coalition troops during a patrol in the Nad Ali district. ‘Coalition forces responded with small-arms fire and as the incident continued, an air strike was employed against the insurgent position,’ said a Nato spokesman.
He added that Nato sent a delegation to meet local leaders and investigate the incident.
Nato has received harsh criticism in the past for accidentally killing civilians during operations against suspected insurgents. However, civilian death tallies by the United Nations show the insurgency is responsible for most war casualties involving non-combatants.
In south Afghanistan, Nato said two coalition service members were killed, one on Friday and another yesterday. The international alliance did not release further details.
With the casualties from the helicopter crash, the deaths bring to 365 the number of coalition troops killed this year in Afghanistan and 42 in the past month.
At the Pentagon, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said he was deeply saddened by the loss, and vowed that the US will stay the course to complete the mission to make the world a safer place.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the best way to honour their sacrifice was to keep fighting. He asked for patience as the military worked to notify families of their losses.