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Airstrike kills insurgents who downed helicopter
KABUL, Afghanistan -- An airstrike by international forces has killed the Taliban insurgents responsible for the downing of a U.S. helicopter last weekend in which 38 U.S. and Afghan troops died, including the militant who launched the fatal rocket-propelled grenade, the military claimed Wednesday.
The claim of success comes amid fears that as U.S. troops begin to leave Afghanistan, the country is far from stable and remains deadly for those forces who remain. As U.S. troops thin out, special operations forces like those that died in Saturday's helicopter crash are likely to make up a greater part of the American force in Afghanistan.
F-16 fighter jets killed the insurgents responsible on Monday, according to the top American commander in Afghanistan, Marine Corps Gen. John Allen.
The military provided few details to back up the claim, but Allen said he was confident the airstrike killed fewer than 10 insurgents involved in the attack on the U.S. Chinook helicopter.
"All of these operations generate intelligence," Allen said, including about those who fled the site of the crash.
"We tracked them as we would in the aftermath of any operation, and we dealt with them with a kinetic strike, and in the aftermath of that we have achieved certainty that they, in fact, were killed in that strike," Allen said. He spoke by video from his Kabul headquarters.
In a separate statement, the military said the strike killed a Taliban leader and the insurgent who fired the rocket-propelled grenade at the helicopter. That statement also cited intelligence gathered on the ground. It did not provide further details.
"This does not ease our loss, but we must and we will continue to relentlessly pursue the enemy," Allen said. The crash was the deadliest single loss for U.S. forces in the nearly 10-year Afghan war.
The military is still seeking the top insurgent leader that troops were going after in Saturday's mission, Allen said.
Allen defended the decision to send in the Chinook loaded with special operations forces to aid Army Rangers pursuing insurgents in a dangerous region of eastern Afghanistan.
"The fact that we lost this aircraft is not ... a decision point as to whether we'll use this aircraft in the future," Allen said. "It's not uncommon at all to use this aircraft on our special missions."
According to officials, the team included 17 SEALs, five Navy special operations troops who support the SEALs, three Air Force airmen, a five-member Army air crew and a military dog, along with seven Afghan commandos and an Afghan interpreter.
Allen agreed that as U.S. troops begin to pull out of Afghanistan, such counterterrorism missions -- often by special operations forces -- will increase and become prominent. He spoke from Kabul to reporters at the Pentagon.
It is generally expected that there will also be special operations forces in Afghanistan well after 2014, when NATO hopes to hand off responsibility for security to Afghan forces.
Afghanistan has more U.S. special operations troops, about 10,000, than any other theater of war. From April to July this year, 2,832 special operations raids captured 2,941 insurgents and killed 834, twice as many as during the same time period last year, according to NATO.
This weekend's deaths are a reminder of the danger faced on such missions. Overall, at least 368 international troops have died so far this year, including 273 Americans.
Allen also said that after the beginning of the year, he will likely begin shifting more forces to the east, where coalition troops are facing a stubborn insurgency. Until then, he said, the military will continue in the south.
"We're going to attempt to disrupt the enemy safe havens throughout the winter, the opportunity for him to rest and refit," Allen said. "And then in the spring and in the summer, we will continue to disrupt the enemy and then spend a particular amount of attention in the east."
But the fight is getting more complicated as international troops try to shift more control over Afghan forces. Operations often seem to be "Afghan-led" in name only and international troops have repeatedly clashed with their Afghan partners. There have been a host of turncoat shootings by Afghan soldiers of international troops this year.
Officials said Wednesday that firefights mistakenly broke out between NATO forces and Afghan police in two parts of the country overnight. In one firefight, in southern Kandahar Province, four Afghan police officers were killed.
Coalition forces have finished their investigation at the helicopter crash site in Wardak Province and have all left the area. Some of the helicopter parts and wreckage were taken away by aircraft and others were taken away on trucks, the coalition said.
While officials believe the helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade, Allen said the military's investigation into the crash will also review whether small-arms fire or other causes contributed to the crash.
Investigators will examine how close the rocket-propelled grenade gunner was to the target -- if it was indeed a rocket-propelled grenade that brought the helicopter down, officials close to the special operations community said.
Special operations and regular army officers also said Saturday's attack fits a disturbing pattern used by the Taliban in the past, of luring a small U.S. force into a target, then attacking them with a pre-positioned larger force. The Taliban claimed to have done just that on the day of the crash.
The Pentagon decided Wednesday to release the names of the 30 U.S. troops killed, after days of debate because of their covert status. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta considered the issue and decided to release the names, spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said.
Baldor reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Kimberly Dozier and Pauline Jelinek contributed to this report from Washington.