Troops still missing near Pakistan; downed copter was on search mission
The 16 servicemembers confirmed killed in the shootdown of a special forces helicopter in Afghanistan were on a mission to find a “small team” of U.S. forces still listed as missing in action, military officials said Friday.
U.S. troops are using “all available assets to find our missing,” Lt. Col. Jerry O’Hara, a spokesman at Bagram Air Base, said Friday. Because the search mission is ongoing, he declined to provide more information.
But military officials did confirm the downed MH-47 Chinook was dispatched Tuesday night in an effort to find the missing servicemembers, who had been taking part in Operation Red Wing in the mountainous area near Asadabad, along the Pakistan border.
“The team on the aircraft was moving to extract the missing when they came under enemy fire,” O’Hara said.
A second spokesman in Afghanistan, Col. Jim Yonts, told Reuters on Friday that U.S. forces did not know where the missing servicemembers are, but that there was “no reason” to believe they have been killed or captured.
“We do not have eyes on them right now, but there is no reason to believe that they are dead. If there was proof that they were killed they would be classified as killed,” he was quoted as saying.
U.S. officials have described Operation Red Wing as an ongoing effort launched after “a series of harassing attacks and intelligence-gathering activities against Afghan and U.S. forces” in Kunar Province.
The MH-47, a special forces variant of the Chinook helicopter used widely in Afghanistan and Iraq, was hit as it approached a landing zone to drop off a SEAL team on board, officials said. Several published reports have said the second team was going after another SEAL team that had been inserted earlier but surrounded by insurgents.
That first SEAL team is reportedly the group still listed as missing.
Just one day earlier at a Pentagon news conference, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, director of operations for the Joint Staff said, “We do not have any people classified as missing at this point.”
Conway also said it was likely the MH-47 was brought down by a rocket-propelled grenade, terming it a “lucky shot.”
In phone calls to news agencies this week, a purported Taliban spokesman claimed members of the deposed religious militia shot down the Chinook. On Friday, the same spokesman, who has been proved wrong in the past, claimed the same fighters had killed or captured several other servicemembers in the area.
On Friday, officials from Combined Joint Task Force–76 in Afghanistan confirmed Tuesday’s crash killed eight Navy SEALs from units in Norfolk, Va., and San Diego, Calif.; seven members of the Army’s 3rd Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) at Hunter Army Airfield, Ga.; and one member of the 160th SOAR based at Fort Campbell, Ky.
All 16 bodies have been recovered, officials said Friday. While most of the family members have been notified their loved ones are among the dead, the Pentagon has not announced the names of the servicemembers killed.
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.
The incident is the worst single combat loss for U.S. forces in Afghanistan since invading in late 2001.