Taliban insurgents who shot down a US Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan, leaving 30 American troops dead, have been hunted down and killed in an air strike, a US commander said Wednesday.
But the insurgent leader who was the target of the original operation in which the Americans perished remained at large, said General John Allen, commander of NATO-led forces in Afghanistan.
"Did we get the leader that we were going after in the initial operation? No, we did not," he told reporters by video link from Kabul.
In the deadliest incident of the war for NATO, insurgents shot down the Chinook on Friday in eastern Afghanistan, killing 30 US troops, including 25 elite special forces, as well as seven Afghan commandos and an interpreter.
|US soldiers from the 1st Battalion , 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team delivers two sheep at Combat Outpost Sangsar in Afghanistan's southern Kandahar province on August 10, 2011.|
Allen said that "at approximately midnight on 8 August, coalition forces killed the Taliban insurgents responsible for this attack" in a bombing raid by an F-16 fighter jet.
The general called the downing of the chopper in the remote Tangi Valley a "tragic incident" but portrayed the retaliatory strike against the insurgents as proof that the United States would press ahead with the war.
"This does not ease our loss, but we must and we will continue to relentlessly pursue the enemy," said Allen.
The helicopter attack came at a sensitive moment as US forces begin a gradual withdrawal and amid growing anxiety in Congress about the cost of the conflict that has dragged on since 2001.
Allen announced the air strike against the insurgents amid criticism of the Pentagon's handling of the crash.
The ceremony for the return of the remains of the fallen troops, attended by President Barack Obama and other top officials, was closed to the media and the names of those killed have yet to be released -- in a break with Defense Department practice.
But Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan said Wednesday the identities would be released within 24 hours, after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta overruled objections from officers at US Special Operations Command.
Describing the helicopter crash in detail for the first time, Allen said the Chinook had been sent in as part of an operation targeting a Taliban leader.
"The intelligence that had been generated to this point led us to believe there was an enemy network in the Tangi Valley in the Wardak province, and the purpose of this mission was to go after the leadership of that network," the general said.
When "less than 10" insurgent fighters were seen "escaping," the Chinook chopper carrying 22 Navy SEAL commandos, three Air Force special forces and Afghan soldiers was ordered in to head them off, he said.
The CH-47 was then shot out of the sky with a rocket-propelled grenade, killing all 38 people on board.
Afterward, US forces tracked the insurgents responsible, calling in an air strike late Monday with an F-16 fighter.
The insurgents were traced over the weekend to a wooded area in Chak District "after an exhaustive manhunt" by Special Operations Forces, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said in a statement.
The airstrike killed the "shooter" as well as a Taliban militant, Mullah Mohibullah, as they "were attempting to flee the country in order to avoid capture," ISAF said.
Asked if he had concerns about the use of the larger, slower Chinook in Friday's operation or the deployment of such a large number of elite special forces as a quick reaction force, Allen said he was "comfortable" with the decisions made.
"We've run more than a couple of thousand of these night operations over the last year, and this is the only occasion where this has occurred," he said, adding that the CH-47 has been routinely deployed