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Helicopter crash kills six in Afghanistan; two Marines die in separate incident

The chopper was operated by a contractor for Western forces. Both incidents occurred in volatile Helmand province, where a major military operation is underway.

July 15, 2009|Laura King

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Military officials said Tuesday that six foreign contractors and four Western soldiers, including two U.S. Marines, were killed in what is fast becoming one of the most lethal months for coalition forces in Afghanistan.

The contractors died when their helicopter, hired by NATO's International Security Assistance Force, crashed early Tuesday in volatile Helmand province. The provincial governor said an Afghan child on the ground was killed as well as all those aboard the aircraft.

Military officials also reported the deaths Monday of two Marines in Helmand, where the biggest U.S.-led military operation since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001 is underway. In addition, an Italian soldier was killed Tuesday in a roadside bombing in Farah province in western Afghanistan, the Italian military said.

Another Western soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in eastern Afghanistan, where most of the foreign troops are American. The soldier's nationality was not immediately released.

With the latest military deaths, July may prove the deadliest month for foreign troops since the Afghan conflict began nearly eight years ago. A tally by the independent website icasualties.org said 43 foreign troops had been killed so far this month. To date the monthly high is 46, for both June and August of last year, the site reported.

News agency reports said the downed helicopter was operated by a Moldovan company and that all those aboard were Ukrainian. Officials with the NATO force said the craft and its crew were under contract to supply British troops in Helmand.

The Taliban claimed through a spokesman that it shot down the helicopter, but such a claim is routinely put forth when any coalition aircraft crashes. Insurgents have rarely managed to down Western helicopters; weather or mechanical problems are usually the culprit. Military officials said the cause of the crash was under investigation.

No details were disclosed about the Marines' deaths other than that they resulted from "hostile activity," according to a U.S. military spokeswoman.

About 4,000 Marines, part of a buildup that will bring American forces in Afghanistan to 68,000 by year's end, are taking part in a push into the lower Helmand River valley, where Taliban fighters in past years have operated freely. The insurgents have mainly slipped away without confronting the Marines, but they had already seeded the main routes with roadside bombs, which have proved the most serious hazard facing the American force to date.

Helmand is a center of Afghanistan's lucrative drug trade, whose profits help fuel the insurgency. The Marines, who swiftly built a string of small bases after seizing a swath of villages and farmland on July 2, have said they intend to establish a long-term presence in the area.

American and other Western forces are trying to improve security throughout Afghanistan before the Aug. 20 presidential election so that violence doesn't prevent large numbers of people from taking part in the vote. But the advent of the summertime "fighting season," coupled with the push by Western troops into insurgent-held territory, has contributed to an increase in military casualties in recent days.

In Britain, heated debate about the Afghan mission broke out after eight British soldiers were killed over a 24-hour period that ended Friday. The bodies of the slain troops were flown to Britain on Tuesday.

Just over a week ago, U.S. forces suffered seven fatalities in a single day -- the largest one-day tally in nearly a year.

The south, where American, British, Canadian and Dutch troops all operate, is considered the country's most violent region. But insurgents have also staged attacks this month in widely scattered parts of the country, some of which had previously been considered relatively calm.

A number of private contractors operate helicopters like the one that crashed in Helmand. As in Iraq, contractors often face dangers similar to those confronting combat troops.

The increase in the number of Western troops in the country means larger numbers of contractors are required for tasks such as construction and kitchen work, and a shortage of aircraft has led to greater use of privately contracted helicopters.

The crash was first reported by Afghan authorities in Helmand's Sangin district, who said the craft plunged to the ground and burst into flames. In addition to the child who was killed, an Afghan on the ground was injured, they said.

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laura.king@latimes.com

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