A U.S. Air Force aircraft crashed early Friday in southern Afghanistan, killing three American military personnel and one government contractor, while wounding several others, according to NATO officials. The Taliban claimed they had shot down the CV-22 Osprey, a hybrid helicopter-airplane, but Afghan officials in Zabul province denied this was the case.
The Osprey is a tiltrotor aircraft that takes off like a helicopter. Once in flight, two rotors fold out into airplane shape, allowing it to travel farther and faster than a helicopter. Marines operating in nearby Helmand province regularly travel in Ospreys.
The cause of the crash was unknown, according to a NATO statement. The Osprey had been carrying U.S. forces at about 1 a.m. when it went down about 11 kilometres west of Qalat, the provincial capital.
NATO officials said there was a firefight near the scene of the crash, making it difficult to tell whether the aircraft had been shot down. Local eyewitnesses said they believed that it had been.
“NATO forces raided a village where the Taliban had already taken up positions,” said an eyewitness in Nowkhaiz village, who asked not to be named. “When the helicopter swooped down, the Taliban shot the helicopter, we heard the exchange fire and then the crash of the helicopter and it was on fire… The shooting on both sides went on for a while,” the man said. (New York Times)
Zabiullah Mujahid, spokesman for the Taliban in the region, said Taliban fighters shot down the aircraft. Another spokesman, Qari Yoseph Ahmadi, also claimed responsibility and said that 30 Americans had been killed. “We will carry out more attacks on helicopters,” said Ahmadi, “and our fighters now understand how to shoot down helicopters.” (New York Times)
The provincial spokesman, Mohammad Jahn Rasuliyar, said an unspecified “technical problem” was to blame. “We strongly reject the Taliban claims that they shot down the aircraft. That place is safe. There is no insurgency at all,” he said. The Osprey crashed in Nawkhiz village, he said. (Washington Post)
It was the second time in less than two weeks that NATO aircraft have crashed in Zavul province, an impoverished and sparsely populated region that borders Pakistan. On March 29, a helicopter crashed in Zabul, injuring 14 people, including NATO and Afghan troops.
Also last month, a helicopter carrying Turkish soldiers crash landed in Wardak. And last July, a civilian helicopter crashed in southern Afghanistan, killing at least 16 civilians and injuring five.
Losses have been relatively light, though, despite insurgent fire and difficult conditions, and most crashes have been accidents caused by maintenance problems or other factors such as dust.
Lacking shoulder-fired missiles and other anti-aircraft weapons, the Taliban rely mainly on machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades to target helicopters at their most vulnerable during landings and takeoffs.
The latest incident was the first known deadly crash of an Osprey since it entered active service in 2006, although numerous lives were lost in accidents while the aircraft was under development.
The Osprey is the U.S. military’s latest-generation transport aircraft, able to travel twice as fast and three times farther than its predecessor, the Vietnam War-era CH-46 Sea Knight. With room for up to 24 passengers, it comes equipped with sophisticated guidance and missile defence systems.
It was nearly canceled several times due to cost overruns – which pushed the bill to over $100 million per aircraft – and a series of fatal crashes and other incidents. In 2000, a crash in Arizona killed all 19 marines aboard and a separate crash killed four marines in Florida.
With more pressing military priorities elsewhere in southern Afghanistan, the American and Afghan soldiers left in Zabul have conceded some territory to the Taliban, who move freely in the province.