US helicopter shot down

At least six Americans were killed and an unknown number wounded when their helicopter was shot down over eastern Afghanistan in intense fighting that caused the worst casualties of the five-month-old war, Pentagon officials said today.

It was not clear how many of the soldiers died in the crash and how many were killed by small-arms fire during fighting that broke out after the crash, said Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke.

She said she didn't know the number of wounded nor whether a search-and-rescue operation had been completed.

The helicopter, normally used to ferry special forces troops and supplies, was downed on its way to the largest battle of the five-month war so far - an assault on suspected al-Qaida and Taliban fighters that the Pentagon says were regrouping south of Gardez.

It was the first American aircraft taken down by enemy fire in the war, after accidental crashes of other craft since the anti-terror campaign opened in October.

And it was the highest number of deaths suffered by Americans in any single combat operation since the war started October 7.

"We have some small numbers of U.S. troops killed," in the downing of the MH-47 Chinook helicopter, which occurred early Sunday night Washington time, Clarke said.

A defence official speaking later on condition of anonymity said at least six were dead.

The incident came as the largest coalition force assembled so far in the campaign - combining troops from America, Afghanistan and at least six other nations - engaged an estimated several hundred al-Qaida and Taliban in intense fire fights backed by airstrikes.

In addition to allied Afghan fighters and U.S. Special Forces, troops from Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany and Norway were participating.

Clarke called the fighting "the largest military operation we have been engaged in thus far and in combat, the most loss of life."

About three dozen U.S. soldiers have been injured since the operation began Friday, she said.

More than 1,000 U.S. troops are involved in the operation against opposing forces believed to be mostly al-Qaida, she said.

"There's been some very fierce resistance on the part of al-Qaida," Clarke said. "These are the ones who have clearly chosen to fight it out."

Before the downing of the helicopter, the casualty toll of the operation started on Friday had stood at one American and three Afghans killed and an undisclosed number injured.

Previously, the most deadly incident for Americans in the war came on January 9 when six Marines were killed in the crash of a tanker plane into a mountain in Pakistan.

Pro-U.S. Afghan troops approached the hide-outs from three directions to isolate the fighters and prevent them from escaping.

Safi Ullah, a member of the Gardez town council, or shura, said the first stage of the offensive was designed to cut the road from Shah-e-Kot to trap al-Qaida and Taliban forces in the mountains. He said the plan also involved setting up checkpoints to prevent them from getting out.

Pakistan has closed its border with eastern Afghanistan and deployed extra army units and members of the Khasadar tribal militia to catch any who try to cross the frontier and filter into its Northwest Frontier Province.

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