Taliban shoot down NATO chopper, four Americans killed
Taliban militants shot down a NATO helicopter in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday, killing four US soldiers and bringing to 23 the number of foreign troops killed in escalating violence so far this week.
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) helicopter came down in Helmand province, a stronghold of Taliban fighting to topple the Western-backed government and evict the 130,000 US-led foreign troops in Afghanistan.
"Four ISAF service members were killed in the crash," a military spokesman said. "The helicopter was brought down by hostile fire."
Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Breasseale later confirmed that the dead soldiers were American.
Yousuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, telephoned AFP from an undisclosed location to claim responsibility.
"We brought it down with a rocket. It crashed in the Sangin district bazaar today at around 10:00 am (0530 GMT)," Ahmadi said.
According to an AFP tally based on the independent website icasualties.org, 253 foreign soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan so far this year. Last year was the deadliest yet, with 520 killed.
Much of southern Afghanistan is blighted by a nearly nine-year Taliban insurgency, now in its deadliest phase, and is where US and NATO troops are building up a campaign to flush the militants out of Kandahar city.
The crash brought to five the number of NATO soldiers killed in the south on Wednesday, after London announced that a British soldier died in an explosion elsewhere in Helmand province.
Twenty-three NATO soldiers have died since Sunday, including 10 on Monday when US-led forces in Afghanistan encountered their deadliest day in combat in two years, with seven Americans, two Australians and a French soldier killed.
In the east, three policemen were killed when their vehicle struck an improvised bomb in Ghazni province on Wednesday, Khyalbaz Sherzai, the Ghazni provincial police chief, told AFP.
The Taliban also claimed responsibility for that attack.
Despite the mounting casualties, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday in London that he expected to see signs of progress in a flagship counter-insurgency strategy "by the end of the year".
Gates said the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, "is 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 there was a difficult struggle ahead, warning it would be a "tough summer".
Gates said the United States and its allies were under pressure to show some success in the war. Voters in many countries have appeared increasingly weary of casualties in a seemingly endless foreign war.
The US military has warned that casualty tolls will inevitably climb during the increased operations.
NATO, US and Afghan soldiers are preparing their biggest offensive yet against the Taliban in Kandahar, with total foreign troop numbers set to peak at 150,000 in total by August.
The Taliban vowed last month to unleash a new campaign of attacks on diplomats, lawmakers and foreign forces.
It claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on a landmark Afghan meeting last week convened by President Hamid Karzai in Kabul to drum up support for plans to give jobs and money to militants who lay down arms.
© 2010 AFP