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Details still emerging on deaths of Americans

U.S. Navy SEAL Neil Roberts, shown here during his naval service.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Top U.S. military officials said Wednesday details were still sketchy surrounding the death of a Navy SEAL who fell from a helicopter Monday in Afghanistan and was apparently dragged away and killed by al Qaeda fighters.

Officials had said Tuesday that U.S. commanders watched in agony as images were beamed back from a reconnaissance plane of Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Neil C. Roberts, 32, being captured and executed.

Roberts apparently fell from the Chinook after it was hit by a rocket propelled grenade Monday. The Chinook's crew discovered that Roberts was missing when the aircraft had to land a short distance away with hydraulic failure caused by the attack.

"I have not seen the tape. I do not know if that is on the tape.. whether or not he was dead or alive when whatever took place did take place," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said. "It seems to me that one ought to be willing to allow some time to pass over something like this so that the people who are looking at these things can come to some conclusions."

"Several of the commanders and people in Afghanistan have reviewed the tapes and they have come to different conclusions," said Gen. Tommy Franks, chief of U.S. Central Command. "The fact that one view has been widely reported, I acknowledge. Now, whether or not that is an accurate view is something that will be based not only on my viewing.. but discussion with other people who were present so that we can get the truth."

Six other U.S. service members died in a firefight Monday after their chopper was hit by enemy fire and crash landed about a mile from the first incident in rugged terrain in eastern Afghanistan.

The description of the capture and killing of Roberts was one of the most detailed accounts of the deadliest day in the war against terrorism for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

U.S. officials said that when the first helicopter was hit by an al Qaeda-launched missile, it rapidly took off and landed a short distance away with hydraulic failure from the attack. The crew then discovered one of its men had apparently fallen out.

Meanwhile, commanders of the forces watched real-time images from an unmanned Predator drone that showed al Qaeda members capture and kill Roberts, officials said.

"We saw him on the Predator being dragged off by three al Qaeda men," Major Gen. Frank L. Hagenbeck, the operation commander, told a pool reporter.

"At the conclusion when we extracted all our forces, we brought home the body of that young sailor and I will tell you, from all indications, the al Qaeda executed him probably before our forces got there or immediately upon arrival," Hagenbeck said.

He said the United States responded Tuesday with withering force, using Apache helicopters and Air Force fighters to strike the al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

"We body slammed them today and killed hundreds of those guys," Hagenbeck said.

In the second incident Monday, officials said two helicopters were flying in the region when one of the choppers came under fire.

An intense firefight broke out on the ground after the helicopter crash landed. Six Americans were killed in the ensuing battle.

The remaining crew members had to survive coming under constant fire for about 12 to 14 hours before being rescued, officials said. The bodies of those killed were recovered at that time.

A commando team secretly moved into the area and retrieved Roberts' body. His crew mates in the crippled chopper also were rescued, officials said.

The Pentagon said there was no choice but to keep forces in the middle of the fight.

"There was an American, for whatever reason, [who] was left behind. And we don't leave Americans behind," said Brig Gen. John Rosa, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

-- CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr and National Security Correspondent David Ensor contributed to this report.




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