WASHINGTON/KABUL (Reuters) - NATO-led forces killed the Taliban militants responsible for shooting down a U.S. helicopter last weekend but not the insurgent leader targeted in the doomed mission, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan said on Wednesday.
The disclosure by General John Allen came during a briefing on the crash that killed 30 U.S. forces -- most of them elite Navy SEALs -- in the single deadliest incident for the U.S. military in the Afghan war. Eight Afghans were also killed in the crash in a remote valley southwest of Kabul.
Allen acknowledged that the main Taliban leader sought in the August 6 operation was still at large.
“Did we get the leader that we were going after in the initial operation? No, we did not,” Allen said. “And we’re going to continue to pursue that network.”
The deaths of so many Americans have resonated in a way at home that other battlefield incidents have not, with relatives, pastors and friends of the fallen appearing in U.S. media, praising troops fighting an unpopular war that usually takes a backseat to concerns like the economy.
U.S. President Barack Obama flew to Dover Air Force Base on Tuesday to watch the arrival of the remains of those killed and the military has launched an investigation into the attack.
Allen defended the decision to send in the elite team, saying it was necessary to chase militants who were escaping an ongoing operation that targeted an important Taliban leader.
“We committed a force to contain that element from getting out. And, of course, in the process of that, the aircraft was struck by an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) and crashed,” Allen told Pentagon reporters via video-conference from Kabul.
Allen said a subsequent air strike around midnight on August 8 killed other Taliban insurgents believed to be behind the attack -- an assertion the Taliban immediately challenged.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said those killed were Taliban leader Mullah Mohibullah and the insurgent who it said fired the shot that downed the CH-47 helicopter. It said the two men were trying to flee the country -- presumably to safe havens in neighboring Pakistan.
The Pentagon said they were in a compound when they were hit by F-16 aircraft.
In Afghanistan, Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, denied that the person responsible for shooting down the helicopter was killed.
“The person who shot down the helicopter is alive and he is in another province operating against (foreign forces),” he told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.
The elite team of U.S. forces was sent in to help complete an operation started late on Friday by an ISAF Special Operations Command team that included at least some U.S. Rangers in central Maidan Wardak province.
Allen was asked why the elite team was traveling in a slow-moving CH-47 Chinook.
“We’ve run more than a couple of thousand of these night operations over the last year, and this is the only occasion where this has occurred,” he said. “It’s not uncommon at all to use this aircraft on our special missions.”
Sources familiar with special operations told Reuters the team could have traveled in a MH-47 helicopter, which is specially equipped for such missions.
The investigation by NATO will also focus on the barrage of fire the U.S. force encountered as it headed into the fight.
Allen said he believed an RPG was at least partly to blame, but acknowledged small arms fire may also have played a role.
“We don’t know with any certainty what hit (it),” he said.
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has decided to release the names, ranks and hometowns of the special operations forces killed in the crash, despite objections by the Special Operations Command, Pentagon spokesman Colonel David Lapan said.
The commanders were concerned about the safety of special forces families, Reuters has reported.
Lapan said he expected the names to be published by the Pentagon by Thursday morning.
Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni and Michelle Nichols in Kabul,David Alexander in Washingon;Editing by Doina Chiacu