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Details emerge of Afghan disaster for US special forces

Ambush of copter said to occur after urgent call

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The last radio contact was an appeal for help. Night was falling, a rainstorm was threatening, and four Navy SEAL commandos were surrounded by about a dozen militants in wooded mountains. They needed reinforcements.

That hurried call set into motion a chain of events that would lead to the US military's deadliest blow in Afghanistan, and the greatest loss of life ever for a force of SEAL commandos.

Nine days after the ambush and downing of a US special forces helicopter with 16 troops aboard, US military officials in Kabul and Washington are giving more details about what might have happened to cause the ambush.

The four commandos were on a reconnaissance mission on June 28 as part of a deployment known as Operation Red Wing, searching for rebels led by the Taliban and for Al Qaeda fighters in Kunar province, said a US military spokesman, Colonel James Yonts. Two were killed, one is missing, and one was rescued.

The eastern province has been a hotbed of militant activity and a haven for fighters loyal to the former premier, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is wanted by the United States. US officials said Al Qaeda fighters also were in the region. Osama bin Laden was not said to be there, though he is believed to be somewhere along the rugged Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier.

The SEAL team was attacked by a ''pretty large force of enemy terrorists," Yonts said at a press conference. The fighters, he said, radioed urgently for help from reinforcements.

After the radio call, , eight Navy SEALs and an eight-member crew from the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known as the Night Stalkers, flew toward the mountains in an MH-47 Chinook helicopter.

It was dusk as US forces approached the area.

Suddenly, militants in thick forest hit the helopter with what is believed to have been a rocket-propelled grenade, Yonts said.

Lieutenant General James Conway, director of operations for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the shot as ''pretty lucky."

Though damaged, the helicopter flew on for about a mile before landing badly on a small ledge on the side of the mountain, and then tumbling into a steep ravine. All 16 onboard are thought to have died in the crash. Militants then swarmed over the wreckage.

The Chinook, when hit, had been flying alongside other choppers. Their pilots immediately informed US commanders of the crash, a US official said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of information regarding special forces operations.

US warplanes, more helicopters, and forces on the ground were dispatched to the site, but they were hampered by an approaching rainstorm.

In the meantime, there was no contact from the four commandos.

Fears were further raised when a purported Taliban spokesman, Mullah Latif Hakimi, said rebels had captured one of the men. But he gave no proof, and US officials voiced skepticism.

US forces reached the wreckage of the helicopter last Thursday, 36 hours after it went down.

The bodies of the 16, whose ages ranged from 21 to 40, were flown to Bagram, the main US base in Afghanistan, before they were transported to Dover, Del.

On Saturday, a breakthrough was made in the search for the four commandos. A tribal elder living in the nearby mountains told authorities he was caring for one of them in his house, said the Kunar governor, Asadullah Wafa.

US forces rushed to the site and found the wounded commando. He was flown to Bagram for treatment and a debriefing.

On Sunday, US troops in the area spotted the bodies of two commandos in a deep ravine. It took 24 hours to recover their remains and fly them to Bagram.

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