KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — A helicopter on a combat mission crashed while landing at night in eastern Afghanistan after the pilot failed to see holes on the ground, Army officials said Tuesday. Sixteen U.S. soldiers on board were injured.
The soldiers suffered bruises and fractures in the accident — the latest in a series of aviation accidents that have claimed 11 American lives. Only two Americans have died in combat.
Meanwhile, a Red Cross official charged that the U.S. military assured him three weeks ago that there would be no raid on a hospital where six al-Qaida gunmen were holed up. After a two-month siege, the gunmen were killed Monday in an assault on the hospital by Afghan fighters backed by U.S. special forces.
Gianni Bacchetta, an administrator for the International Committee of the Red Cross in the southern city of Kandahar, said that he had asked the special forces to give the Red Cross some warning if they were going to attack Mir Wais Hospital. The Red Cross received no such warning, Bacchetta said.
Bacchetta doubted, however, that the Red Cross would file a protest because the gunmen were combatants. The agency, which is partly responsible for the hospital, had pulled down its flag three weeks ago because the hospital had become a "combat zone."
"They were in the hospital, wounded, but they were armed, and subject to using the arms," Bacchetta said.
The gunmen were believed to be from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Algeria, he said.
The helicopter accident occurred when 24 members of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division were landing at a Marine Corps encampment Monday near the town of Khost, an area hit repeatedly by U.S. air strikes and ground-force operations against suspected training camps used by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.
None of the injuries were considered life threatening, Army Capt. A.C. Roper said at a news briefing at the U.S. military base in Kandahar.
The pilot of the CH-47 Chinook apparently failed to see holes in the ground at the landing site due to darkness and dust, Roper said.
Aviation accidents have proven the most lethal aspect of the Afghan campaign.
Seven Marines died when a KC-130 refueling tanker crashed and exploded in Pakistan on Jan. 9, and two Marines died in a helicopter crash Jan. 20 in a resupply mission to special forces north of Kabul. Two Army Rangers died in an earlier chopper accident.
On Tuesday, five Marines injured in the Jan. 20 helicopter crash were transferred from a U.S. military hospital in Germany to the United States for further treatment, said Naval Cmdr. Rex Totty, a spokesman for the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart.
The marines are being taken to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland after a week of treatment at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, said Totty. All the men are in stable condition, he added.
In Kabul, turbaned tribal leaders raised their hands in prayer as Afghanistan's flag was raised Tuesday at the first government ministry opened since the fall of the hard-line Taliban.
"It's historic and symbolic for us to see it fly over government offices again," said Mir Ali Zadran, the deputy minister for border and tribal affairs — the ministry opened.
In Washington, visiting Afghan leader Hamid Karzai failed to win a promise from President Bush that U.S. soldiers would join an international peacekeeping force, currently led by Britain, that many Afghans want deployed across the country.
The force is confined to policing the capital, Kabul, and could face resistance if it moved into the provinces, where warlords hold sway.
The United States will support the international security force and stands ready to help if its "troops get in trouble," Bush said.
Washington intends to keep troops in Afghanistan until at least mid-year to hunt remnants of al-Qaida and the Taliban who harbored bin Laden's men.
Bush promised that the United States would help train an Afghan military and police force to help bring stability to the nation.
In other developments:
CBS News reported that bin Laden was in Pakistan having kidney dialysis the night before Sept. 11. Citing Pakistani intelligence sources, the network said bin Laden was spirited into a military hospital in Rawalpindi. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States has seen nothing to substantiate the CBS report.
As part of a security drive, police in Kabul cracked down Tuesday on vehicles with dark-tinted windows that can hide weapons and conceal fleeing criminals.
Aid workers in the largest refugee camp in Afghanistan plan to recount the residents because they fear they are supplying too much aid, said Jean-Philippe Chauzy, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration in Geneva. The official population of the Maslakh camp is 324,000, but the actual number could be less than half that, Chauzy said.