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NATO: Helicopter Apparently Shot Down in Afghanistan, 7 Troops Killed

31 May 2007

NATO officials say enemy fire may be to blame for a military helicopter crash in southern Afghanistan. Seven American, British and Canadian soldiers were killed in the incident. VOA correspondent Benjamin Sand reports from Islamabad that the Taleban is claiming responsibility for the attack.

The helicopter crashed late Wednesday in the southern province of Helmand, deep inside a traditional Taleban stronghold and the site of heavy fighting in recent weeks.

NATO officials say all seven soldiers on board died in the incident. U.S. sources say the casualties were five Americans, a Briton, and a Canadian.

NATO spokesman Major John Thomas says initial reports suggest militants shot the twin-rotor Chinook helicopter down.

He says troops sent to the crash site were ambushed by insurgent forces.

"Under continued fire, the responding patrol called for an air strike to eliminate the enemy threat," he said.

A purported Taleban spokesman says militant forces attacked the helicopter.

The incident occurred in the Kajaki district, where a major hydroelectric dam is being planned.

Afghan and foreign forces have mounted a series of raids in the area to clear the rugged countryside of entrenched Taleban insurgents.

Once completed, Afghan officials say the dam would provide electricity to the city of Kandahar and help spur development in the impoverished region.

Afghan officials say Helmand province remains the world's leading source of opium, the primary ingredient in heroin.

They say the drug trade is increasingly controlled by the Taleban and their allies, who use the profits to buy weapons and pay recruits.

U.S. officials say recent operations have inflicted "significant losses" for the Taleban, including several Taleban leaders.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday in Washington, Brigadier General Perry Wiggins said coalition forces have, "seized the initiative" from the Taleban, but he warned the fight is far from over.

He said the next few months would be critical, with insurgent forces gaining strength as they attract more young Afghan men, many of whom just finished working on the latest harvest of opium poppies.

Last year was Afghanistan's deadliest since U.S.-led forces ousted the hard-line Taleban regime in 2001. More than 5,000 people have been killed since last January and Afghan officials say the violence is, once again, on the rise.

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