* Single highest death toll for foreign troops
* Taleban says they downed helicopter
* Crash occurred two weeks after start of security handover
(Adds details of casualties from helicopter crash)
By Michelle Nichols
KABUL, Aug 6 (Reuters) - A NATO helicopter crashed in
central Afghanistan overnight killing 31 U.S. soldiers and 7
Afghan troops, the Afghan president said on Saturday, a
devastating death toll and easily the worst single incident for
foreign troops in 10 years of war.
A brief statement from the presidential palace said the
helicopter had crashed in central Maidan Wardak province, just
to the west of the capital, Kabul, and identified the Americans
as special forces troops.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai "shared his deep sorrow and
sadness" with U.S. counterpart Barack Obama and the families of
the U.S. and Afghan victims, the statement said.
The Taliban claimed to have shot down the troop-carrying
Chinook helicopter during a firefight and killed 38 soldiers.
The Islamist group also said in a statement that eight
insurgents had been killed in torrid fighting.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)
confirmed a helicopter had crashed but gave no further details.
The high casualties come only two weeks after the start of a
gradual process of handing security responsibility from foreign
forces to Afghan troops and police, and at a time of growing
unease about the increasingly unpopular and costly war.
That process is due to end with all foreign combat troops
leaving Afghanistan by the end of 2014, but some U.S. lawmakers
have already questioned whether that handover is fast enough.
Incidents with heavy death tolls are sure to raise even more
questions about the transition process and how much longer
foreign troops should stay.
The crash was by far the worst incident of the war for
foreign troops and easily surpassed the worst incidents of
In April 2005, another CH-47 Chinook helicopter crashed,
killing 15 U.S. servicemen and three civilian contractors.
Another Chinook crash in June the same year killed 17 U.S.
U.S. and other NATO commanders have claimed success in
reversing the momentum of a growing insurgency in the Taliban
heartland in the south, although insurgents have shown a
worrying ability to adapt their tactics and mount major attacks
in other areas.
Those gains, however, have come at a price, with 711 foreign
troops killed in Afghanistan in 2010, easily the deadliest year
of the war for all concerned since the Taliban were toppled by
U.S.-backed foreign troops in late 2001.
The crash in Maidan Wardak means that at least 374 foreign
troops have been killed so far in 2011, more than two-thirds of
them American, according to independent monitor
www.icasualties.com and figures kept by Reuters.
Neither ISAF nor the U.S. military in Afghanistan confirmed
whether there had been any casualties in the crash despite
repeated telephone calls, much less any nationalities that might
have been involved.
The majority of foreign troops in Wardak, which comes under
ISAF's eastern regional command, are American.
Despite the alarming military toll, ordinary Afghan
civilians have continued to bear the brunt of the war, with
civilian casualties also hitting record levels in the first six
months of this year, according to U.N. figures.
Earlier on Saturday, Afghan police said a NATO air strike
killed eight civilians in southern Helmand province on Friday.
ISAF confirmed there had been an air strike in Helmand's Nad
Ali district and said it was investigating whether civilians had
been present at the time.
Civilian casualties caused by foreign troops hunting Taliban
fighters and other insurgents have long been a major source of
friction between Kabul and its Western backers.
Nad Ali district police chief Shidi Khan said the air strike
was called in after insurgents attacked ISAF troops in the area.
The victims of Friday's air strike in Helmand were members
of a family that had fled fighting in neighbouring Uruzgan
province, police said.
ISAF said the civilians may have been held hostage by the
The most contentious of the first seven areas to be handed
over was the Helmand provincial capital of Lashkar Gah.
Helmand province has been the site of some of the most
vicious fighting of the war. Far more foreign troops have died
there than in any other province and there are still several
Helmand districts dominated by the Taliban.
In the past month, insurgents have carried out a string of
destabilising assassinations of high-profile southern leaders,
including president Karzai's half brother, and several large
attacks killing police and civilians.
A U.N. report last month said 1,462 civilians were killed in
conflict-related incidents in the first six months of 2011, up
15 percent on the first half of 2010. It blamed insurgents for
80 percent of those deaths.
(Additional reporting by Mustafa Andalib in GHAZNI and Mirwais
Harooni and Haseeb Sadat in KABUL; Editing by Paul Tait and Ron
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