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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Bodies of copter crash victims are flown home from Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — Troops killed in the deadliest day of the Afghan war are coming home today — traveling in death much the same way they did in life — shrouded in secrecy.

Pentagon officials said that remains of the 30 killed in a weekend helicopter crash are scheduled to arrive Tuesday at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

But three days after the downing of the aircraft by insurgents, the Defense Department hasn’t released their names. Officials said it’s taking time because there were so many killed. Others say privately there also is hesitancy to release the names because the majority were from secretive special operations forces.

A ceremony later Tuesday will be closed to the press. Top civilian and uniformed leaders will attend along with some family members.

Allen had earlier presided over a solemn ceremony at Bagram airfield, north of Kabul, as the remains were loaded aboard two C-17 cargo planes for the long journey home. In Washington, the Pentagon said the arrival of the remains at the military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware would not be open to media coverage because the bodies, badly mangled in the crash, had not yet been individually identified.

The downing of the helicopter was the largest single loss of military lives in the course of the nearly 10-year-old war.

Western military officials confirmed publicly on Monday that the helicopter had gone down as it was arriving to help other troops engaged in fierce fighting. No casualties were reported among the original ground force in the area, identified by military sources as U.S. Army Rangers, who work closely with the SEALs.

Some Western and Afghan officials had initially said the chopper was shot down while lifting off after an engagement with insurgents in a restive district of Wardak province. A precise chronology of the raid has been slow to coalesce, in part because of the intense operational secrecy associated with the elite units involved.

Monday's NATO statement was the first detailed public accounting of the incident, describing an operation that "began as a security search for a Taliban leader responsible for insurgent operations in the nearby Tangi Valley." The area, a gateway to the capital, Kabul, has been overrun by Taliban and other insurgent groups in recent months.

Special operations troops carry out hundreds of raids a month across Afghanistan, based on intelligence-gathering and primarily targeting insurgent field operatives. Most of them take place at night.

The urgent nature of the SEALs' fatal raid -- a hastily assembled rescue mission -- likely accounts for the fact that so many were rapidly deployed aboard a Chinook, a large, vulnerable target when moving slowly on takeoff and landing. When staging a raid at the time and place of their choosing, clandestine forces normally travel aboard smaller, nimbler aircraft, and in less sizable groups. The military investigation into the cause of the crash is likely to scrutinize the decision to send such a large group aboard a single aircraft.

In Saturday's firefight, the initial team on the ground spotted insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades in the area and engaged them, calling for help about the same time, the NATO force said.

"These additional personnel were inbound to the scene when the CH-47 carrying them crashed, killing all on board," the statement said, adding that the troops already on the ground -- backed by forces from a nearby Western base -- then moved in to secure the scene. No casualties were reported among them.

The statement identified those aboard as five air crew members and 25 personnel from the Special Operations command. Previous reports have said those attached to the SEALs force included a civilian interpreter and a dog handler.

Western officials, meanwhile, said the incident should not be depicted as a larger barometer of battlefield fortunes. "The incident, tragic as it was . . . will have no influence on the conduct of operations," said Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, a German spokesman for the NATO force.

Even in the absence of hostile fire, helicopters are vulnerable to mechanical problems and bad weather. Early Monday, a U.S helicopter made a "hard landing" -- essentially a controlled crash -- in Paktia province, near the Pakistan border. Western officials said that there was no indication of hostile fire and that the special operations forces who were awaiting pickup secured the area and attended to the crew.

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