Kabul, Afghanistan All 16 U.S. troops on a special forces helicopter were killed when the chopper was shot down by insurgents, the U.S. military said Thursday after rescuers recovered the bodies from the wreckage in a mountainous ravine.
The MH-47 Chinook helicopter went down Tuesday in eastern Afghanistan while ferrying troops to a battle against militants - the deadliest single blow to American forces who ousted the Taliban in 2001 for harboring al-Qaida and are now grappling with an escalating insurgency.
"At this point, we have recovered all 16 bodies of those servicemen who were onboard the MH-47 helicopter that crashed on Tuesday," Lt. Gen. James Conway, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon.
The dead on the helicopter included eight Navy SEALs and eight Army air crew, a U.S. official said in Washington.
Authorities initially reported 17 people were on board, but the manifest included a person who apparently missed the flight, military officials said.
Conway said the military did not yet have a full account of all ground troops involved in the operation, although "we do not have any people classified as missing at this point."
He would provide no details when asked what was known about the troops on the ground that the helicopter was sent to aid.
"I can only say that it is an ongoing operation in that context, and we don't have full accountability nor will we until such time as the operation is complete," he said.
Rescuers reached the crash site Thursday, about 36 hours after the chopper went down in high mountains near the town of Asadabad, close to the border with Pakistan, U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Jerry O'Hara told The Associated Press.
A purported Taliban spokesman, Mullah Latif Hakimi, claimed the group shot down the helicopter, and also said there was video of the attack. No video has been released, however, and the spokesman could not be reached Thursday.
Conway said it appears an unguided rocket-propelled grenade hit the chopper. He called it "a pretty lucky shot against a helicopter."
He said it appears the troops on board died during the crash and not during a fight on the ground afterward.
A storm that hampered rescuers from reaching the wreckage Wednesday was over Thursday. Recovery operations also were hindered by the rugged terrain of the remote crash site, which could be reached only by foot, and by continued fighting with militants.
O'Hara said "there are still bad guys in the area" around the crash site and that troops were having to "do a recovery and a tactical operation at the same time."
Only eight months ago, Afghan and U.S. officials were hailing a relatively peaceful presidential election as a sign that the Taliban rebellion was finished. That bravado has been yet another casualty in a war some feel could escalate into a conflict on the scale of Iraq's.
The loss of the helicopter follows three months of unprecedented fighting that has killed about 465 suspected insurgents, 43 Afghan police and soldiers, 125 civilians, and 45 U.S. troops, including the 16 killed in Tuesday's crash. Afghan and American officials have predicted the situation will deteriorate before legislative elections in September.