4 die as NATO aircraft crashes in Afghanistan

The crash of a NATO aircraft in volatile southern Afghanistan killed three U.S. service members and a civilian contractor, the Western military said Friday.

A number of others onboard were injured in the overnight crash in Zabol province, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force said in a statement, without giving details. It identified the craft as an Air Force CV-22 Osprey, which uses tilt-rotor technology to take off and land like a helicopter but fly like a plane.

The Taliban said it had shot down the aircraft, but insurgents routinely issue such claims whenever a Western plane or helicopter goes down. NATO said the cause of the crash was not immediately known.

Ospreys, which can fly twice as fast as helicopters, have suffered a number of crashes and mechanical failures in the early years of development, together with significant cost overruns.

Officials did not identify the branch of service of those who were killed and injured, or disclose anything about their mission.

Zabol borders Kandahar province, which is expected to be the venue for a major Western military offensive over the summer. It also shares a border with Pakistan, with numerous Taliban infiltration routes along the porous frontier. Insurgents are active throughout Zabol, military officials have said.

NATO did not immediately say whether its forces had been able to secure the scene of the crash and remove the downed Osprey, which is fitted with an array of sophisticated communications gear and weapons systems.

The Western military said the injured were taken to a nearby military base for treatment. The crash occurred about seven miles west of Zabol’s capital, Qalat.

NATO forces rely heavily on both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft because Afghanistan’s roads are so bad and its distances so great. But in more than eight years of fighting, the Taliban have only rarely been able to down Western aircraft.

Mechanical failure and weather-related problems are much more likely culprits in crashes. But insurgents did manage to shoot down a Chinook helicopter five years ago, killing 16 U.S. troops.

U.S. battlefield casualties have spiked in the first quarter of this year, with 88 deaths -- roughly doubling from the same period a year ago, according to the independent website

The largest proportion of deaths and injuries occur in Afghanistan’s south, where the insurgency is at its strongest. Makeshift bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, are the biggest single killer of Western troops.

In the western province of Herat, Afghan police on Friday reported the deaths of three civilians when their minivan hit a roadside bomb. The road on which the vehicle was traveling is sometimes used by military convoys; insurgent-planted bombs aimed at Western troops often kill and injure civilians instead.