KABUL (Reuters) - Eight U.S. soldiers were killed and 14 injured when their helicopter crashed in a mountainous, snow-covered area of southern Afghanistan, the U.S. military said on Sunday.
The twin-rotor Ch-47 Chinook crashed a few hours before dawn after the pilot suddenly lost power and control of the aircraft, the military said in a statement.
Recent reports indicated a Taliban build-up for operations against the U.S.-led Coalition forces in the area, near Pakistan.
But the U.S. military said there was no evidence hostile fire or bad weather was behind the crash.
“The loss of these service members is felt by all of us here in Afghanistan, and we offer our deepest sympathy to the families of those who were killed,” coalition spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel David Accetta said.
Asked if any enemy fire was involved, U.S. Marine Major William Mitchell told CNN from Afghanistan: “So far indications are strong that it was related only to the engine problem.”
NATO and the Taliban are all warning of a major spring offensive as the snows melt in coming weeks and months, after last year saw the bloodiest fighting since the strict Islamists were toppled in 2001.
Taliban commander Hayatullah Khan told Reuters by telephone from a secret location the guerrillas had shot down the craft. But the Taliban have made similar claims in the past which have not been substantiated.
The only confirmed downing of a foreign military helicopter by insurgents since the Taliban were toppled was in mid-2005 in Kunar province, when 17 people were killed as the helicopter came in to land during a combat operation.
Fourteen British personnel were killed when their plane crashed during combat in a major offensive in September in Kandahar province, but that incident was attributed to a technical failure.
On Saturday, the Dutch commander in charge of NATO forces in the south, the Taliban’s spiritual heartland, rejected rebel warnings they are massing 10,000 fighters and have more than 2,000 suicide bombers ready for an offensive.
“The (Taliban) spring offensive will not happen because we are going to take the initiative,” Major-General Ton van Loon told reporters in Uruzgan province, one of the worst hit by fighting in recent months, echoing comments by NATO chiefs.
He said he saw no evidence the Taliban were massing forces and he expected none of the conventional pitched battles which saw the insurgents suffer heavy losses in 2006.
Most NATO and U.S. commanders say they expect the rebels to return to hit-and-run guerrilla tactics, including more use of suicide bombers.
While not as common as in Iraq, and with far fewer casualties, suicide bomb attacks increased dramatically last year and militants here copy tactics.
After U.S. and NATO commanders warned a few months ago of a Taliban offensive, they now say NATO will take the initiative instead.
On Saturday, NATO troops shot dead an Afghan civilian who they said ran between stationary vehicles in a convoy and ignored warning shots in Kandahar province, neighboring Uruzgan. The incident is being investigated.