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Afghan bomb kills 2 U.S. soldiers


Madrid (Spain)

(CNN) -- An roadside bomb has hit a military armored vehicle north of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, killing two U.S. soldiers and wounding two others, according to the coalition command in Kabul.

Also on Thursday the bodies of 17 Spanish soldiers killed in a helicopter crash two days ago in western Afghanistan were returning home to Spain.

The violence and the mounting deaths come during a volatile period in Afghanistan, where U.S. and Afghan forces has been engaged in fierce fighting with Islamic militants ahead of next month's September 18 parliamentary and provincial council elections.

The vehicle struck by the explosive had been "part of a convoy operating in the area in support of the Tarin Kowt road construction project," described as "a U.S. effort to build a modern major highway and improve local infrastructure," the coalition said in a statement.

The two wounded soldiers was taken to Kandahar Airfield, where they were treated and listed in stable condition.

The number of American deaths in the nearly four-year Afghan operation -- dubbed Enduring Freedom -- is now at 226. The operation, which started a month after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, ousted the Taliban government that harbored the al Qaeda terror network responsible for those strikes.

Fighting in the country has persisted, particularly along and near the Afghan-Pakistani border, where remnants of the Taliban have endured over the years.

Eight U.S. service members have been killed in August and in late June, 16 American troops were killed when their MH-47 helicopter was downed by a rocket-propelled grenade near Afghanistan's Kunar province.

High winds

Two days, ago, 17 Spanish soldiers -- part of a NATO force charged with providing security for the parliamentary and provincial council polls -- died in a helicopter crash near Herat. On Wednesday, the campaign period for the elections began.

Early Thursday, a Spanish military plane carried those bodies back to Spain. It was expected to arrive at a military base in Madrid this evening, Spanish officials said.

Spanish officials say the most likely cause of the crash, near the Spanish base at Herat, was an accident due to high winds and not to hostile fire, although the investigation remains open.

Spanish Defense Minister Jose Bono -- who went to Afghanistan after the incident -- was aboard the Spanish military plane bringing home the remains of the soldiers.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who interrupted his vacation in Spain's Canary Islands after the crash, on Thursday was due to visit the three bases where the 17 troops were based: One in northwestern Pontevedra province, another near the southern city of Seville and a third in the northern Madrid suburb of Colmenar Viejo.

Zapatero on Tuesday said Spain's 850 troops were playing a "crucial role" in bringing stability and democracy to Afghanistan and the government has indicated the troops will stay.

Two small leftist parties in Spain have urged they be brought home but there has been no widespread movement opposed to keeping the troops there.

Spanish media reports said the military was readying replacement troops for those who died and also the shipment of two additional helicopters to Afghanistan.

The reports said the military was preparing to replace the helicopter that crashed and burned and also to replace a second aircraft that was flying near the first one and made a hard landing, thinking that an attack was under way.

Four soldiers aboard the second craft were slightly injured.

Madrid Bureau Chief Al Goodman contributed to this report.

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