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A CH-47 Chinook helicopter comes in for a landing near Charikar, Afghanistan last month. A special operations Chinook with 17 servicemembers aboard went down near Asadabad on Tuesday night, apparently from enemy fire.

A CH-47 Chinook helicopter comes in for a landing near Charikar, Afghanistan last month. A special operations Chinook with 17 servicemembers aboard went down near Asadabad on Tuesday night, apparently from enemy fire. (Michael Abrams / S&S)

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — A U.S. special operations helicopter that crashed late Tuesday while transporting troops to a firefight in eastern Afghanistan may have been brought down by enemy fire, officials said Wednesday.

There was no immediate word on the fate of the 17 crewmembers and troops on board the Chinook, which crashed in an area west of Asadabad, a rugged town along Afghanistan’s mountainous border with Pakistan.

“Initial reports indicate the crash may have been caused by hostile fire,” Lt. Col. Jerry O’Hara, a Combined Joint Task Force-76 spokesman, said Wednesday. “Coalition and Afghan National Army forces quickly moved into position around the crash to block any enemy movement toward or away from the site.”

Rescue operations were hampered by the rugged terrain of the crash site — reachable only by foot — and bad weather, officials said.

The helicopter — flying with a second Chinook at the time of the crash — was part of Operation Red Wing, which U.S. military officials described as an ongoing effort launched after “a series of harassing attacks and intelligence-gathering activities against Afghan and U.S. forces” in Kunar Province.

At a Wednesday press conference in Kabul, another spokesman confirmed the helicopter was hit as it approached its landing zone.

“Whether or not that caused it to crash, we do not yet know,” said Col. Jim Yonts, adding that the helicopter crashed about a half-mile away.

“This is a tragic event for all of us, and our hearts and prayers go out to the families, loved ones and men still fighting in the area,” Army Brig. Gen. Greg Champion, deputy commander of CJTF-76, said in a statement. “This incident will only further our resolve to defeat the enemies of peace.”

The first official report of the crash came around 9:30 p.m. Tuesday in Afghanistan, when CJTF-76 officials distributed a news release about the downed craft. According to The Associated Press and CNN, a purported Taliban spokesman called news agencies just before the release and claimed the Chinook had been shot down by members of the deposed religious militia.

Several reports cited unnamed Pentagon officials as saying the helicopter was an MH-47, the special operations version of the ubiquitous, dual-rotor Chinook helicopters relied on for moving troops and supplies throughout Afghanistan and Iraq. According to those reports, a team of Navy SEALs, along with Army special operations troops, was on board.

The only Army unit that flies the MH-47 variant of the Chinook is the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), the majority of which is based at Fort Campbell, Ky. O’Hara would say only that the helicopter was part of the CH-47 “series,” which includes the special operations version.

Other pilots in Afghanistan said the incident, while tragic, was not unexpected.

“Last week, we had four of our own shot up. It’s something we think of quite regularly,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Robert DePartee, a CH-47D pilot with Company D, 113th Aviation Regiment, an Oregon National Guard unit at Kandahar Airfield.

“The ’47 is a large target, but it has to take hits in certain areas to bring it down.”

Unpleasant as the thought is, he said, flight crews talk about shootdowns, mainly to prevent another one from happening.

“We talk about it [because] we want more info,” he said. “We want to know more to determine what happened, what phase of flight they were in ... when it happened. We try to find out more so we can learn from the incident make us better as a crew.”

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Russell Smith, another CH-47 pilot with the Oregon Guard, said encounters with armed enemies were frequent.

“They’re all over the place. You run into pockets,” he said.

Violence in Afghanistan has flared up in recent months as Taliban remnants try to derail provincial elections set for September. According to U.S. and Afghan officials, 29 U.S. servicemembers, nearly 500 insurgents, 40 Afghan security troops and dozens of civilians have been killed in the past three months.

If confirmed, Tuesday’s incident would be the first time enemy forces have shot down a U.S. helicopter in Afghanistan since Operation Anaconda in 2002. During that fight, a Chinook carrying special operations troops was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade and forced into an emergency landing. Six servicemembers were killed in an attempt to retrieve a seventh who had been killed after being knocked out of the helicopter when it was hit.

Tuesday’s crash is the second in Afghanistan involving a Chinook in recent months. On April 6, a Germany-based CH-47 Chinook crashed in a dust storm southwest of Kabul, killing 15 servicemembers and three civilians. The helicopter crew was part of Giebelstadt’s Company F, 159th Aviation Regiment, known as “Big Windy.” Also killed were several members of the Vicenza, Italy-based Southern European Task Force (Airborne).

That incident was single worst loss of life for U.S. forces since the 2001 invasion. There are around 19,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, along with another 10,000 from other countries.

Jason Chudy reported from Kandahar, Afghanistan. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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