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Fights Break Out in Afghanistan as NATO Moves to Recover Downed Helicopter

U.S. soldiers from the 2nd Brigade, 87th Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division, secure the area after existing a Chinoonk helicopter, Helmand Province, southern Afghanistan, in this Sunday, June 18, 2006 file photo. Insurgents apparently shot down a U.S. military helicopter Saturday Aug. 6, 2011 similar to this one shown during fighting in eastern Afghanistan, killing 30 Americans, most of them belonging to the same elite Navy SEALs unit that killed Usama bin Laden, as well as seven Afghan commandos, U.S. officials said.AP

An Afghan official says there is fighting in the area where a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter was apparently shot down Saturday by the Taliban, killing 38, including more than 20 Navy Seals from the unit that killed Usama bin Laden in May.

Wardak provincial spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said Sunday that a joint operation was taking place in the Tangi Joy Zarin area of Sayd Abad district where the large transport helicopter went down late Saturday. 

The clashes Sunday did not appear to involve the troops around the crash site.

"There have been a small number of limited engagements in the same district as yesterday's helicopter crash, however those clashes have not been in the direct vicinity of the crash site," NATO said in a statement. "As of now, we have no reporting to indicate any coalition casualties resulting from these engagements."

Wardak provincial spokesman Shahidullah Shahid confirmed the helicopter recovery mission was under way and said there were reports of Taliban casualties overnight.

"There is a joint operation going on by Afghan and NATO forces. A clearing operation is ongoing in the district and there are reports of casualties among insurgents," Shahid said. "The area is still surrounded by American forces."

U.S. officials say the 22 Navy SEAL Team Six members and other troops lost in Saturday's helicopter crash in Afghanistan had rushed to the area to help fellow U.S. troops under fire.

The officials say the SEALs had responded to a request by U.S. Army Rangers who were taking heavy fire after going after a target.

One of the officials says the SEALs had completed their mission, subduing the attackers, and were departing in a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter when it was apparently hit by rocket-propelled grenade fire.

The other official said that the Rangers, special operations forces who work regularly with the SEALs, secured the crash site afterward. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the event while the investigation remains ongoing.

The SEAL mission was first reported by CNN.

President Barack Obama said Saturday that the deaths are a reminder of the "extraordinary" price the U.S. military is paying in the decade-long Afghan war. 

A total number of 38 people died in the crash, killing 7 Afghans and one interpreter.

"We don't believe that any of the special operators who were killed were involved in the bin Laden operation," a senior U.S. military official told Fox News.

The death toll would surpass the worst single day loss of life for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001 -- the June 28, 2005 downing of a military helicopter in eastern Kunar province. In that incident, 16 Navy SEALs and Army special operations troops were killed when their craft was shot down while on a mission to rescue four SEALs under attack by the Taliban. Three of the SEALs being rescued were also killed and the fourth wounded. It was the highest one-day death toll for the Navy Special Warfare personnel since World War II.

The Taliban claimed they downed the helicopter with rocket fire while it was taking part in a raid on a house where insurgents were gathered in the province of Wardak late Friday. It said wreckage of the craft was strewn at the scene. A senior U.S. administration official in Washington said the craft was apparently shot down by insurgents. 

NATO confirmed the overnight crash took place and that there "was enemy activity in the area."

"We are in the process of accessing the facts," said U.S. Air Force Capt. Justin Brockhoff, a NATO spokesman.

With its steep mountain ranges, providing shelter for militants armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers, eastern Afghanistan is hazardous terrain for military aircraft. Large, slow-moving air transport carriers like the CH-47 Chinook are particularly vulnerable, often forced to ease their way through sheer valleys where insurgents can achieve more level lines of fire from mountainsides.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Saturday gave the first public word of the new crash and expressed his condolences to President Barack Obama.

The helicopter was a twin-rotor Chinook, said an official at NATO headquarters in Brussels. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he was receiving his information from an Afghan officer in Kabul.

The volatile region of Wardak borders the province of Kabul where the Afghan capital is located and is known for its strong Taliban presence.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement that Taliban fighters downed the helicopter during a "heavy raid" in Sayd Abad. He said NATO attacked a house in Sayd Abad where insurgent fighters were gathering Friday night. During the battle, the fighters shot down the helicopter, killing 31 Americans and seven Afghans, he said, adding that eight insurgents were killed in the fight.

There have been at least 17 coalition and Afghan aircraft crashes in Afghanistan this year.

Most of the crashes were attributed to pilot errors, weather conditions or mechanical failures. However, the coalition has confirmed that at least one CH-47F Chinook helicopter was hit by a rocket propelled grenade on July 25. Two coalition crew members were injured in that attack.

Meanwhile, in the southern Helmand province, an Afghan government official said Saturday that NATO troops attacked a house and inadvertently killed eight members of a family, including women and children.

NATO has come under harsh criticism in the past for accidentally killing civilians during operations against suspected insurgents. However, civilian death tallies by the United Nations show the insurgency is responsible for most war casualties involving noncombatants.

In south Afghanistan, NATO said two coalition service member were killed, one on Friday and another on Saturday. The international alliance did not release further details.

With the casualties from the helicopter crash, the deaths bring to 365 the number of coalition troops killed this year in Afghanistan and 42 this month.

Fox News' Conor Powell in Kabul and the Associated Press contributed to this report.