2 Americans Among 16 Dead in Civilian Helicopter Crash in Afghanistan

A helicopter crashed in bad weather in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, killing all 16 people on board, including at least two American civilians, officials said Thursday.

Also on Thursday, the U.S.-led coalition used artillery to kill three suspected Taliban rebels holed up in a house, a coalition statement said.

Afghan army and U.S.-led coalition troops have recovered 12 bodies and were searching for four more in the difficult, mountainous terrain where the civilian Mi-8 helicopter crashed on Wednesday, Col. Tom Collins, a coalition spokesman, told reporters.

Collins said there were Afghans and foreigners on board, including at least two Americans. The Dutch military has said two of its personnel were also on board — the first fatalities among Dutch forces in Afghanistan.

"There are no survivors," Collins said. "The terrain in this area is extremely difficult and we are now working hard to recover the remaining crew and passengers."

Coalition forces killed the rebels following a failed ambush on a coalition convoy in the Zhari district of southern Kandahar province, according to the statement.

There were no coalition or civilian causalities, it said.

Southern Afghanistan has seen the worst upsurge of violence in the country since late 2001, when a U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban government for harboring Usama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network.

The Russian-made civilian helicopter crashed about 25 miles northeast of Khost city in a region where Al Qaeda and Taliban militants are believed to be active.

Collins said there was no indication yet of what caused the crash. A purported Taliban spokesman claimed the militants were responsible, but a Dutch military official said the crash appeared to have been an accident.

Dutch Defense Ministry spokesman Lt. Col. Nico van der Zee said bad weather may have been a factor in the crash, though he said the military had not ruled out the helicopter being shot down.

"It was in a mountainous region in very bad weather — rain and mist which reduced visibility," van der Zee said in The Hague. "That points toward it being an accident such as flying into a mountain or something like that."

In an e-mail to an Associated Press reporter in Pakistan, Muhammad Hanif, who claimed to speak for the Taliban, said its militants had shot down the helicopter on Wednesday afternoon with an unspecified "new weapon."

Hanif's exact ties to the Taliban leadership are unclear. In the past, claims of responsibility made in the Taliban's name have sometimes proved false or exaggerated.

The helicopter was operated by a logistics firm, Tryco. A Tryco official in Kabul said the helicopter was rented by Fluor, a U.S.-based company doing construction work in Khost province, about 90 miles south of the capital, Kabul.

The 16 people on board reportedly included at least three crew.

The Dutch military said two of its personnel, a lieutenant colonel from the air force and an army sergeant, were on the helicopter. Officials in Kabul declined to provide information about the other passengers.

Maj. Luke Knittig, a spokesman for a NATO-led security force in Afghanistan, said the helicopter had been flying to a so-called provincial reconstruction team base in Khost. The Dutch were studying security arrangements at the U.S.-run base to help them as they establish their own camps in restive Uruzgan province where hundreds of their troops are deploying as part of a NATO-led security force.

The Netherlands has more than 1,500 troops in Afghanistan, most of them in Uruzgan.

There have been a series of deadly helicopter crashes in Afghanistan over the past year from accidents or hostile fire.

In January, an Mi-8 transport helicopter chartered by the Red Cross crashed high in snowy mountains in Kapisa province north of Kabul, killing all seven on board. The bodies were retrieved in June.

In May, 10 U.S. soldiers died when their CH-47 Chinook crashed in the mountains of eastern Kunar province during combat operations against militants near the Pakistan border. There was no sign the crash was caused by hostile fire.

In June 2005, a rocket-propelled grenade hit a Chinook in Kunar, killing 16 U.S. troops.