WASHINGTON: The Taliban insurgents who shot down a US helicopter in Afghanistan, leaving 30 American troops dead, have been hunted down and killed in an air strike, a US commander said Wednesday.
General John Allen, the new chief of US-led forces in Afghanistan, said that “at approximately midnight on 8 August, coalition forces killed the Taliban insurgents responsible for this attack” in a bombing raid by an F-16 fighter jet.
Insurgents had shot down a Chinook helicopter on Friday in the remote Tangi Valley in Wardak province, killing 30 American troops on board -- including 25 elite special forces -- in the deadliest incident of the war for Nato.
Allen called the downing of the chopper southwest of Kabul a “tragic incident” but portrayed the retaliatory strike against the insurgents as proof that the United States would press ahead with the war.
“This does not ease our loss, but we must and we will continue to relentlessly pursue the enemy,” said Allen, speaking to reporters via video link from Kabul.
“We will face the obstacles ahead with a steadfast determination to prevail.” The helicopter attack came amid waning public support for the war and growing anxiety in Congress about the cost of a conflict that has dragged on since 2001.
Allen announced the air strike against the insurgents as the Pentagon faced criticism over how it has handled the crash.
The ceremony for the return of the remains of the fallen troops, which was attended by President Barack Obama and other top officials, was closed to the media and the names of those killed have not been released -- in a break with Defense Department practice.
Describing the helicopter crash in detail for the first time, Allen said that the Chinook had been sent in as part of an operation targeting a Taliban leader.
“The intelligence that had been generated to this point led us to believe there was an enemy network in the Tangi Valley in the Wardak province, and the purpose of this mission was to go after the leadership of that network,” the general said.
When elements of the insurgent force were seen “escaping,” the Chinook chopper carrying Navy SEAL commandos and Afghan soldiers was ordered in to head them off, he said.
The CH-47 was then shot out of the sky with a rocket-propelled grenade, killing all on board.
US forces then tracked the insurgents responsible, calling in an air strike on Monday night with an F-16 fighter, he said.
The insurgents were traced over the weekend to a wooded area in the Chak district “after an exhaustive manhunt” by special operations forces, the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said in a statement.
The F-16 strike killed the “shooter” as well as a Taliban militant, Mullah Mohibullah, it said.
“The two men were attempting to flee the country in order to avoid capture,” he said. However, the Taliban leader originally targeted in Friday's mission was not killed, Allen said.
Asked if he had concerns about the use of the larger, slower Chinook in Friday's operation or the deployment of a large number of elite SEAL special forces as a quick reaction force, Allen said he was “comfortable” with the decisions made.
“I'm comfortable that that was the right decision to be made at that time,” he said. But Allen added that an investigation into the circumstances of the crash had just begun.