WASHINGTON – Severe weather conditions in Afghanistan were blamed for the crash of a rescue mission helicopter and the loss of an unmanned U.S. military aircraft.
U.S. rescue crew members had to be rescued themselves after their helicopter crashed during a mission in Afghanistan, the Defense Department said.
The team was attempting to land and pick up a sick soldier when freezing rain caused their helicopter to crash at about 1:30 p.m. EST Friday, injuring four crew members.
The crash seriously damaged the helicopter but its crew's injuries were not life-threatening, according to a statement from the U.S. Central Command. Another helicopter rescued the stranded crew, it said.
The four crew members were taken out of Afghanistan, although Pentagon spokesman Air Force Maj. Mike Halbig declined to say exactly where.
Halbig denied Taliban claims that they shot down the helicopter, and that dozens of soldiers were involved.
"It's false. As many claims with the Taliban, it is simply not true," he said.
The unarmed Air force RQ-1B Predator was reported missing Friday at approximately 2:15 p.m. EST. "Preliminary reports indicate that severe weather contributed to the loss," said a statement released at the Pentagon and issued by the U.S. Central Command.
Pentagon officials have complained for days that freezing rain and fog have been probelmatic for operations in northern Afghanistan.
Halbig said there were no indications that the Predator had been shot down, either, but that "severe weather contributed to the loss."
The United States said it was the military's first unmanned aerial craft lost in the anti-terrorism effort in Afghanistan.
The damaged U.S. helicopter was later destroyed by F-14 Tomcats from the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, the statement said. This type of search-and-destroy mission would only take place if the items on the helicopter were considered very sensitive and the U.S. military did not want enemies to find the information.
Severe weather also prevented the landing of some special forces teams who are aiding anti-Taliban rebels with training and tactics and directing U.S. warplanes to Taliban targets.
The fourth week of the bombing campaign, meant to destroy Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network and the Taliban militia that shelters it, begins Sunday. President Bush said Friday that the airstrikes won't pause during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins around Nov. 17.
"The enemy won't rest during Ramadan and neither will we," Bush said. "We're going to pursue this war until we achieve our objectives."
He chided critics who are demanding more aggressive U.S. action and said the American people understand the struggle will be a long one.
"This is not an instant gratification war," he said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld left Friday for five countries in the region: Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and India. In an in-flight interview, Rumsfeld said the Taliban were "substantially weakened, in many cases cloistered away from the people." He said it would be "mindless" to slow the military campaign so Afghan factions could agree on an interim post-Taliban government.
"I don't think it's possible to manage the war campaign on the ground under a political timetable," Rumsfeld said.
He said it would be "hard to believe" that the U.S. special forces would not have to fire their weapons at Taliban fighters. He said that was not the main objective, however.
"They're not going in as an occupying ground force," Rumsfeld said.
His first trip to the region was in early October, when he met Uzbekistan's president and announced an agreement to base U.S. troops at one Uzbek air base for possible search-and-rescue and humanitarian missions. The Uzbek president said then he was not ready to accept U.S. special operations troops. Rumsfeld also visited Turkey, Egypt and Oman on that trip.
The United States has troops in Uzbekistan, including members of the Army's 10th Mountain Division. Several spoke by telephone with reporters at the Pentagon on Friday and said living and working conditions there are better than they had expected. The soldiers, who were permitted to give only their first names and their ranks, said they could not discuss their operations.
Charles, a staff sergeant, said morale has been lifted by letters from supportive Americans. "They're coming in every day," he said.
Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said the military is using two high-tech surveillance aircraft over Afghanistan. One is called JSTARS, which is used to track forces on the ground over hundreds of miles. The other is the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft, which is a long-range, high-altitude surveillance drone that has never before been used in a conflict.
Both aircraft are capable of tracking targets in Afghanistan through any kind of weather.
The United States is having a difficult time pinpointing bin Laden, said Stufflebeem, deputy operations chief for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
U.S. intelligence officials say the search for bin Laden is focused on caves or tunnels where bin Laden might be hiding. Analysts are trying to narrow the search, looking primarily in the east and south, with reported sightings stretching from Kabul to the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.
"He's an elusive character," Stufflebeem said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.