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Civilian helicopter crash in Afghanistan kills 16

19/07/2009 - 14:50

By Paul Tait

KABUL (Reuters) - A civilian helicopter crash that killed 16 people at a NATO base in southern Afghanistan pushed up the death toll on Sunday in the U.S. and allied effort to break the Taliban, adding to pressure on Washington and London.

In Afghanistan's east, a suicide bomber killed two police and a civilian at Torkham, an important border crossing point with Pakistan, officials said.

The U.S. military meanwhile condemned as Taliban propaganda a video of a captured American soldier, missing since just before major new operations were launched in the south.

The video showed the soldier, named by the Pentagon as 23-year-old private Bowe Bergdahl of Ketchum, Idaho, unhurt, but saying he was scared and missed his family.

Thousands of U.S. Marines and British troops have launched offensives in Helmand, a Taliban stronghold and the major producer of opium that funds their insurgency, as part of U.S. President Barack Obama's new strategy to combat the Islamist insurgents.

In Kandahar, the Taliban's birthplace adjacent to Helmand, Captain Ruben Hoornveld, a Dutch NATO spokesman, said there was no enemy involvement in the crash which occurred as the helicopter was taking off at the sprawling Kandahar Air Field.

Russia's Interfax news agency described the helicopter as an Mi-8 transporter, operated by a Russian firm, and said it had 17 passengers and three crew on board. It put the death toll at 15.

The nationalities of those killed were not immediately known.

It was the second crash involving a Soviet-era helicopter in a week. Six Ukrainian crew members died when an Mi-26 transport helicopter crashed in Helmand on Tuesday.

NATO and U.S. forces rely heavily on aircraft for troop and cargo movement in a country where travel by road is difficult. They occasionally hire cargo aircraft from former Soviet states.

DEADLY MONTH

July has already become the deadliest month of the 8-year-old-war for foreign troops, putting pressure on political leaders in Washington and London. Commanders have said Obama's new strategy and his decision to pour in thousands more troops this year would lead to a spike in casualties.

Civilians have also been suffering at record levels. The suicide bomber attack on the Torkham border post was the second deadly attack on the post in three weeks.

With Britain suffering its worst battlefield casualties since the Falklands War in the 1980s, political leaders recognise that patience at home is running thin. Britain has lost at least 185 soldiers in Afghanistan, more than during the Iraq war.

The plight of troops in Afghanistan came into sharp focus with the release of footage on the Internet showing the U.S. soldier, missing in southeastern Paktika province since late June.

The video shows the soldier, in traditional Afghan clothing, being prompted in English by his captors to call for U.S. forces to be withdrawn from Afghanistan.

He appeared unhurt and is shown drinking tea and eating bread and rice.

"I miss them and I'm afraid that I might never see them again and that I'll never be able to tell them that I love them again. I'll never be able to hug them," the soldier said.

"The use of the soldier for propaganda purposes we view as against international law," said U.S. military spokesman Captain Jon Stock.

Release of the video could add to fears at home of a long, drawn-out war like the Iraq conflict. U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates told the Los Angeles Times newspaper that Obama's new strategy needed to yield results to maintain support.

"After the Iraq (war) experience, nobody is prepared to have a long slog where it is not apparent we are making headway ... The troops are tired. The American people are pretty tired."

Afghanistan, which holds a presidential election on August 20, has also become a hot political issue in Britain. Debate is raging over whether its troops in the south are adequately equipped, how long they should stay, or whether they should be there at all.

Britain has sent an extra 700 troops this year, bringing its total to 9,000 ahead of the election, a fraction of the tens of thousands of reinforcements sent by Washington.

But British military commanders have warned more troops and equipment such as helicopters may be needed, and at the very least the extra 700 troops will have to stay longer.

(Additional reporting by Ismail Sameem in Kandahar, Peter Graff, Sayed Salahuddin and Jonathon Burch in Kabul, Andrew Hammond in Dubai, Amie Ferris-Rotman in Moscow, Luke Baker in London and Paul Simao in Washington; Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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