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Afghan copter crash kills 6 on mercy trip

BAGRAM, Afghanistan — A U.S. Air Force helicopter on a mercy mission to help two injured Afghan children crashed in southeastern Afghanistan, killing all six people on board, the U.S. military said Monday.

The HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter from the 41st Rescue Squadron at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia was on its way Sunday to pick up the children, who had suffered injuries to the head, said Army spokesman Col. Roger King said. There were thunderstorms in the area at the time, he said.

"You think about the sacrifice these guys made, especially in this case where you've got military personnel who are conducting a flight that's basically a humanitarian mission," King added. "They're trying to go out and save some Afghan kid's life — it's wrenching."

The remains of the six people on board — all Air Force members — have been recovered and were to be flown to Bagram Air Base and prepared for transfer back to the United States, King said.

"The investigation will probably bear out as to whether weather played any part in it."

King said the area is not considered a hostile region, and there are few U.S. military operations there. U.S. Central Command confirmed that the helicopter was not shot down.

The last helicopter crash in Afghanistan was Jan. 30, when an Army Black Hawk helicopter on a training mission crashed near the Bagram air base, killing four.

Meanwhile, U.S. and allied Afghan forces clashed with militiamen loyal to a renegade warlord in a battle that left up to 10 rebels dead, officials said Monday. There were no American casualties.

Both sides blamed each other for sparking Sunday's clash, which took place in Sato Kandow, on the road between the troubled eastern towns of Gardez and Khost.

"The names of those killed are being withheld until their next of kin can be notified," Moody Air Force Base spokeswoman Lt. Alysia Harvey said early Monday.

The helicopter crashed late Sunday about 8:50 p.m., some 20 miles north of Ghazni, Afghanistan, according to officials at Bagram Air Base, north of the capital, Kabul. Ghazni lies 50 miles southwest of Kabul.

In Kabul, Foreign Ministry spokesman Omar Samad said "We express the Afghan government's sorrow for this incident, which occurred during a humanitarian operation to reach some Afghan children in need of medical care."

U.S. military officials in Washington and Afghanistan said the medical emergency and the helicopter flight were not in connection with Operation Valiant Strike, a mission involving members of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division in southeastern Afghanistan.

That mission, which began earlier this month, is meant to root out remnants of the al-Qaida and Taliban believed to be operating in the area.

"The Air Force is a close-knit family and the loss of one of our own affects us all," Brig. Gen. John Folkerts, commander of the 347th Rescue Wing at Moody, said in a statement. The air force base is located in Valdosta, Ga.

"We wish to express our deepest condolences to the family members of these brave airmen and want them to know that we will not forget the valuable contributions they made to this country and the impact they made on the Air Force," Folkerts said.

Ten days ago, about 20 gunmen fired on a U.S. special forces convoy on the road between the town of Gardez, about 40 miles to the east of the crash, and Khost. The attack led to a firefight involving coalition F-16 and A-10 aircraft and a half-dozen of Apache helicopters. Five of the assailants were killed, and there were no coalition casualties.

The last helicopter crash in Afghanistan was Jan. 30, when an Army Black Hawk helicopter on a training mission crashed near the Bagram air base, killing four.