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U.S. troops unaccounted for in Afghanistan

Reconnaissance team had sought backup when chopper downed





WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Military officials said Friday that a small number of U.S. special operations forces remain unaccounted for after an Army helicopter crashed three days ago along the Afghan-Pakistan border while attempting to provide reinforcements.

The small reconnaissance unit was engaged in a firefight and had called for backup. The forces were participating in Operation Red Wing, an effort to defeat terrorists in Afghanistan's Kunar province.

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

Tuesday's crash killed 16 troops, the worst single-day death toll for U.S. forces since the Afghan war began in October 2001.

Their bodies have been recovered, the U.S. military said.

The reconnaissance team was engaged in combat with insurgents on the ground when it called for reinforcements. It was the last contact the U.S. military received from the team.

When U.S. forces arrived at the site of the chopper crash, the small reconnaissance team was not there, military officials said.

There was no sign of blood or immediate combat, officials said.

U.S. special operations forces are highly trained in evasion, and military officials said the missing team members may be staying out of sight and off their radios until they can make their way to safety.

Military officials said the crash killed eight Navy SEALs assigned to units in Norfolk, Virginia, and San Diego, California; seven soldiers from the Army's 3rd Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, based at Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia; and a soldier from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

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

Forces were assessing the cause of the crash, officials said Friday.

The MH-47 helicopter -- the special operations variant of the Army's twin-rotor Chinook transport -- was carrying troops to reinforce U.S. forces on the ground.

It was one of four Chinook helicopters flying together, officials have said. The crew of one chopper saw a smoke trail from an insurgent position, possibly indicating that a missile or rocket had been fired.

Soon after, the helicopter went down, officials said.

A Taliban official called CNN's Pakistan bureau Tuesday, claiming members of the ousted Afghan regime had downed the chopper.

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001 when a U.S.-led force removed it from power.

U.S. troops have been moving in and out of eastern Afghanistan, fighting insurgents suspected of crossing the border with Pakistan.

The increase in fighting has reinforced concerns that the Afghan war may be widening. U.S. and Afghan officials warn the situation could worsen ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for September.

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

CNN's Barbara Starr contributed to this report.

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