Two U.S. service members were killed Thursday in a helicopter crash in Helmand province, the third fatal chopper crash in the south of Afghanistan in less than two months.
The Taliban claimed to have shot down the aircraft. The NATO force said an investigation was underway and that hostile fire could not be ruled out.
American military deaths in Afghanistan are running at the highest level of the nine-year war. A record 60 U.S. service members were killed last month, and the latest fatalities bring July’s tally to at least 49.
Two NATO helicopters were lost in June; one was shot down and the other had mechanical problems. Both of those deadly crashes also took place in the Taliban heartland, where the majority of Western military casualties occur.
A coalition military offensive centered on Kandahar, the south’s main city, is gathering momentum after months of delays, with fighting heating up in outlying districts where Taliban fighters have long been in control.
The NATO force is heavily dependent on helicopters for troop transport, resupply runs and combat missions, because many of the roads in Afghanistan are poorly maintained and the rough terrain makes ground travel extremely difficult.
But helicopters are vulnerable to malfunction in the harsh climate, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization says the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, has ordered field commanders to try to procure more heavy weapons, some of which could be used to target aircraft.
Thursday’s crash took place near Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s provincial capital. Thousands of U.S. Marines and British troops are deployed in the area, which lies close to the town of Marja, the scene of a major offensive this year.
Afghan and Western officials, meanwhile, reported the arrest of an insurgent leader who they said had plotted to attack a major international conference this week. The man was captured Wednesday night near Kabul, the capital, in a raid by NATO and Afghan forces, the military announced Thursday.
Authorities had already reported the separate arrests or killings of several Taliban operatives intending to try to strike at the conference. Tuesday’s gathering drew dozens of high-level diplomats, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The United Nations chief’s plane was diverted to a nearby air base because of rocket fire aimed at the international airport, but insurgents did not manage to otherwise disrupt the meeting. The Taliban, though, called the gathering a “futile” exercise that proved the Western military effort was “doomed to failure.”