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U.S. copter came under fire before crash

17 aboard chopper that went down near Afghan-Pakistani border

MH-47 Chinook Special Operations helicopter
A MH-47 Chinook, similar to the one that crashed, on the flight deck of the carrier USS Kitty Hawk in 2002

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. military helicopter that crashed along the Afghan-Pakistani border came under hostile fire before it went down, a U.S. military spokesman said Wednesday.

The helicopter, which carried 17 U.S. service members, crashed Tuesday west of Asadabad. The Islamic fundamentalist Taliban claimed it shot down the aircraft.

"The aircraft was taking indirect fire [and] direct fire from elements on the ground," said Col. James Yonts, a U.S. military spokesman in Kabul, Afghanistan. "So that's why we say that it may have caused the crash of the helicopter."

A U.S. military statement said "the status of the service members is unknown."

Bad weather hampered rescuers Wednesday at the crash site in the snow-covered Hindu Kush mountains at 10,000 feet above sea level, military officials said. Rescuers have not spotted any bodies or recovered any injured personnel, the officials said.

Rescue aircraft couldn't land in the area because of high wind and heavy rain, the officials said.

Four Chinook helicopters were flying U.S. reinforcements to help others on the ground Tuesday, when a chopper crew saw smoke from an insurgent position -- possibly indicating a missile or rocket had been fired, the officials said.

Soon after, one of the helicopters went down, the officials said.

Air Force A-10 aircraft were also in the area west of Asadabad and saw the activity, the military officials said. They fired on the suspected insurgent positions.

Many of the 17 service members on the MH-47, a variant of the Army's twin-rotor Chinook transport, were believed to be members of various special forces units known as a QRF -- a quick response force -- which moves in under fire to either extract troops on the ground or reinforce them.

The MH-47 Chinook is only flown by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, according to U.S. Army officials. The regiment is assigned to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command.

According to the command, the regiment provides rotary-wing aviation support to Army special operations forces and is nicknamed "Night Stalkers" because of its focus on night operations.

The regiment's 1st and 2nd battalions are based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, while the 3rd Battalion is based at Hunter Army Airfield in south Georgia.

The U.S. military said the aircraft had been taking part in "Operation Red Wing," aimed at defeating al Qaeda militants carrying out harassing attacks and gathering intelligence, Reuters reported.

A Taliban official called CNN's Pakistan bureau Tuesday, claiming the members of the ousted regime had downed the chopper. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until late 2001 when it was knocked out of power by a U.S.-led force.

"This is a tragic event for all of us, and our hearts and prayers go out to the families, loved ones and service members still fighting in the area," U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Greg Champion said.

U.S. forces have been moving in and out of eastern Afghanistan continually, fighting insurgents they believe are crossing the border with Pakistan.

In April, 18 people -- 15 U.S. troops and three military contractors -- were killed when a CH-47 Chinook crashed near Ghazni, 80 miles (128 km) southwest of Kabul. It was returning to Bagram Air Base near the capital. (Full story)

Last week American warplanes bombarded a southern Afghanistan rebel hide-out with missiles and bombs, killing up to 76 insurgents in one of the deadliest single clashes since the Taliban's ouster in 2001.

The increase in fighting has reinforced concerns that the Afghan war is widening, rather than winding down. U.S. and Afghan officials warn things could get worse ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for September.

Officials have warned that foreign militants, backed up by networks channeling them money and arms, had come into Afghanistan to try to subvert the polls.

Fears have been further compounded by a spate of ambushes, executions and kidnappings reminiscent Iraqi militants' tactics.

Afghan officials claim the infiltration of rebels from neighboring Pakistan has contributed to the rise in violence and have urged Islamabad to crack down on militants there.

Pakistan vehemently denies there is any official sanctioning of the infiltration.

On Sunday, Afghan intelligence agents stopped a plot by three Pakistanis to assassinate Zalmay Khalilzad, the departing U.S. ambassador.

CNN's Barbara Starr and Mike Mount contributed to this report.

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