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U.S. trying to recover bodies of 7 Marines

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WASHINGTON — Steep, rocky terrain hindered efforts Thursday to recover the bodies of seven Marines killed when their tanker plane crashed into a mountain in Pakistan, defense officials said.

It was the worst U.S. casualty toll of the Afghanistan campaign and included the first woman killed since U.S.-led Afghan bombing began in October.

Residents in the region reported seeing helicopters flying over the site early Thursday.

In Kandahar, Afghanistan, where the Marines have established a base, spokesman 1st Lt. John Jarvis said the plane was on its final approach to the Shamsi airfield. It had been on the first of what normally would be four refueling stops per mission, so it likely had an almost full cargo of fuel.

A military team was heading from the Marine base at Kandahar to Shamsi to investigate, Jarvis said, echoing statements from the Pentagon that there had been no indication of hostile fire. He had no information on any weather factors, either.

"We're going to do everything we can to find out what caused the accident," Jarvis said. "Recovery is going to be tough. It's very tight terrain — mountainside, not vehicle accessible. It's going to be tough going up to the point the accident occurred."

Marine staff in Kandahar observed a moment of silence.

President Bush said the crash was a reminder of "how serious the times are today."

"Our hearts and prayers go out to the families of the soldiers," Bush said at a fund-raiser for the re-election of his brother Jeb as governor of Florida. "But I want to remind them that the cause that we are now engaged in is just and noble."

The Pentagon identified the seven Marines who were killed as Capt. Matthew W. Bancroft, 29, of Redding, Calif., the pilot; Capt. Daniel G. McCollum, 29, of Richland, S.C., the co-pilot; Gunnery Sgt. Stephen L. Bryson, 36, of Montgomery, Ala.; Staff Sgt. Scott N. Germosen, 37, of New York City; Sgt. Nathan P. Hays, 21, of Wilbur, Wash., Lance Cpl. Bryan P. Bertrand, 23, of Coos Bay, Ore.; and Sgt. Jeannette L. Winters, 25, of Gary, Ind. All were based at the Marine Corps Air Station in Miramar, Calif.

Meanwhile, U.S. warplanes struck at an Osama bin Laden base in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday and on the ground hundreds of troops combed the mountains in pursuit of his fugitive fighters.

Interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai has ordered armed men out of the capital Kabul and identified a primary goal of reimposing security across the rugged, war-shattered land where rival warlords swiftly grabbed fiefdoms in the weeks following the collapse of the Taliban.

Confusion over the surrender of at least one Taliban minister and a local deal to release him raised questions about the control the interim administration exercises outside the capital and the role local warlords play in the hunt for leaders of the vanquished Islamic fundamentalist movement.

Karzai said the capture of reclusive Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and his cohort bin Laden was just a matter of time.

"We will keep looking for both these persons," Karzai told CNN. "They will be arrested, they will be taken. It is just a question of time."

Karzai has said the bombing, which has claimed scores if not hundreds of civilian casualties, must continue until it can achieve its goal.