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Bodies recovered from Afghan crash site

Downed chopper was carrying 16 service members

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

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Coalition forces have recovered all 16 bodies of the servicemen killed in a helicopter crash Tuesday near the Afghan-Pakistan border, according to the U.S. military.

The U.S. military believes the chopper was downed by a rocket-propelled grenade, Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday.

The MH-47 helicopter was transporting additional personnel to support U.S. forces fighting insurgents when it crashed, according to a statement from the Coalition Press Information Center in Kabul. The forces were participating in Operation Red Wing, an effort to defeat terrorists in Afghanistan's Kunar province.

The process of identifying the crash victims and notifying their families is under way, Conway said. Family members of the 16 service members already had been notified that their loved ones were on the helicopter.

Bad weather had hampered rescuers' efforts, with high winds and rain preventing rescue aircraft from landing at the crash site, located at 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) elevation in the Hindu Kush mountains -- a restive, rugged area along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Weather conditions had improved Thursday, allowing soldiers to reach the site, according to Lt. Cindy Moore.

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.

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.

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.

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 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 contributed to this report.

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