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Six U.S. Troops Dead After Helicopter Took Fire and Crash Landed

Aired March 4, 2002 - 10:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We are waiting for more details on the U.S. helicopter that was brought down by enemy fire in Eastern Afghanistan. Now U.S. military officials are telling us that there are six reported fatalities. However, the details are being still cobbled together.

And our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr has been working and watching this cobbling progress. She joins us now with the very latest.

Barbara, what's the word.

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Leon.

Well, Afghanistan turned very deadly for U.S. military forces on the fourth day of heavy fighting in eastern Afghanistan. Indeed, six U.S. troops are dead after their MH-47 helicopter took enemy fire and crash landed in eastern Afghanistan.

Now, when the helicopter crashed to the ground, a firefight broke out, and so U.S. officials are not sure how many of the six men may have died as a result of the crash landing, how many died in this very nasty firefight that broke out once they were on the ground. There are also 10 wounded soldiers from that incident.

But even before that, there was another incident, another MH-47 helicopter took on fire as well. It took on fire from an enemy rocket-propelled launcher, a grenade. That helicopters managed to take off, fly and land at an airstrip near the city of Gardez, but they discovered that they had a fatality as well. They are not sure what happened. They believe that one soldier may have fallen out of the helicopter as was it was taking off from this very hot combat zone.

So that brings it to a total of eight fatalities in Afghanistan, the seven from these two incidents and one over the weekend.

We are told at this hour, that coalition and U.S. ground troops are repositioning so more airstrikes can be called in, so they can deal with some of these enemy fire positions.

This helicopter, both incidents MH-47s, this is one of the premier special forces, special operations helicopters used by the U.S. military. It does a number of things. It can put troops in a combat zone, take troops out. It conducts air assault. It also conducts combat search and rescue, and medivac. We are not sure what either of he's helicopters were doing at the time. The Pentagon hopes to have more information in the next few hours. Pentagon is hoping forces on the ground are trying to medivac out all of the wounded as quickly as they can get to this -- Leon.

HARRIS: Well, Barbara, do we read this to mean then that all of the fighting itself has actually stopped while they are process now of trying to medivac these people out of there, as they stop both the air campaign, as well as the ground campaign that's been underway all weekend?

STARR: No, not at all. All of this, in fact, is continuing at the same time. But what they are trying to do is simply reposition some of the trips troops on the ground, and it's now estimated there are 1,500 U.S. coalition and friendly Afghan forces on the ground, and reposition them so they can go into some of these enemy locations where some of the heaviest firing is coming from. These are caves, mortar launchers, artillery sites, that sort of thing, but they're trying to get the wounded medivaced out no matter with what is going on.

HARRIS: And, finally, Barbara, I don't know if they told you this, but were they able to take out whoever or whatever it was that took out the helicopter?

STARR: Well, we're waiting on word for that. We do assume that they did, and the next thing we are likely to see is an airstrike called in on the wreckage of that MH-47 helicopter. They're going to want to destroy it. They don't want any of that equipment to fall into enemy hands.

HARRIS: Yes, we've seen them do that before in the past as well.

Barbara Starr, at the Pentagon, thank you very much. Barbara being the first one to report this story from the Pentagon. Nice job this morning, Barbara.

Let's go over to the White House right now. Our senior correspondent John King is there. Let's get the word on any reaction from the White House.

John, what have you heard there?

JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Leon, senior administration officials telling us this is yet another tragic reminder that the campaign in Afghanistan is far from over. President Bush, we have been told, has been kept up on the speed on the ongoing offensive as well as these tragic fatalities throughout the morning. It was the subject of a great deal of discussion at his regular National Security Council briefing this morning. And also, the president has been kept you up to date on the latest information about those fatalities and the ongoing search-and-rescue effort by his national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. We are told to expect to hear from the president a little bit later today. He leaves the White House at noon time. He is heading out to Minneapolis to do an education event and some political events out in Minnesota. Unclear, we are told to expect the president as of this hour to speak when he gets to Minnesota.

White House officials do not rule out that he might not stop and say something to reporters on the way out of the White House. Again, though, they expect he will speak about this in Minnesota, and we are told to look for the president of course to offer his condolences to those killed and their families, but also to make clear his resolve to keep the campaign going in Afghanistan. This comes of course not only as the campaign continues in Afghanistan, but as you see, the campaign against terrorism expanding on other fronts as well.

We are told, as he voices his condolences today, Mr. Bush will also repeat his resolve to keep the campaign going until he decides it has been successful -- Leon.

HARRIS: Thank you very much, John. John King at the White House this morning.

Let's now turn to CNN military analyst David Grange. He is a 30- year Army veteran, a retired brigadier general. He joins us, as you see there, from those posts there, somewhere in Chicago.

Good to see you, general.

GEN. DAVID GRANGE, (RET.) CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Good morning, Leon.

HARRIS: What do you make of what you've heard so far? Have you had a chance to check at all with any of your sources at the Pentagon to find out any more information about this?

GRANGE: Well, the fight continues. We thought that earlier. You know, there was a lull for the last month or so, but now it's picked up again. We are fighting in heavy mountainous terrain with a coalition force. There is at least six other countries involved with us, besides the Afghan fighters. We're fighting in areas that are up to 8,500 feet, snow conditions, winter, tough flying, tough maneuvering underground, and they've obviously hit stiff resistance that is going to be tough to take down.

HARRIS: Let me ask you about that resistance. I'm sure the Pentagon was somewhat surprised when they did get up there and find that stiff resistance. What do you make of the way that these troops, or these Al Qaeda forces, have been able to mass together. What we've been hearing up to this point was that, basically, all of the their communications had either been cut out or were being monitored, and yet we're surprised to find this group of people, and this number, as I'm hearing, there are hundreds of them there.

GRANGE: Well, what's hard to take down is the technical intelligence, the non-tech, that's sending messengers, the human piece, not the high technology that is easy for us to intercept and analyze. And they are experts at that, so they can get information around. You have an area that's very remote. The area is not covered down very well by coalition force. The locals, you can trust some, some you can not trust. They definitely all have their own agendas, so as you bribe, or convince or you coordinate with certain local warlords, it is hard it tell what will be the result of that. So to get the proper information, that's very fleeting at best, it is difficult at best and makes targeting very hard to do.

HARRIS: Would you be expect then to find more pockets like this one?

GRANGE: Absolutely. I think that you are going to have hideouts. These are -- they are using bunkers and cave complexes, used with the Mujahadeen against the Soviet forces. I think we have intelligence that tells us about these things, but they have not all been checked out. The border still remains porous in Pakistan. You have local militia and the Pakistani army that's checking some of the roadpoints, some of those are friendly to the Al Qaeda, Taliban cause. So, again, the movement around is very difficult to control.

HARRIS: As I have been reading it, there is a tactical shift here on another level. There are now more U.S. forces now on the ground and doing the fighting in this case. And this is because, some have suggested, because the Pentagon has learned a lesson from the Tora Bora experience, where they were using the Afghan fighters as proxy troops there to go in, and those proxy troops didn't necessarily do the job as thoroughly. What is your reading on this particular move and whether or not it has been successful.

GRANGE: Well, that's a good point. Proxy troops obviously are advantageous to a operation, because they know the local terrain, and they know where the mine fields are. They get the rumors from the locals about who's moving around where. However, again, like I said earlier, they have their own agendas, and so if you don't put your own forces in, it is hard to get ground truth, as you see it, as you analyze it. And so I think you are going to see more American, more coalition forces put in the area to seal off quickly, to strike on the ground right after airstrikes go in order to take down the enemy forces. I think you are going to see an increase of this.

HARRIS: Yes, and what some are saying is that you need to have U.S. troops on the ground there to make sure that nobody else escapes over the border into Pakistan.

Now keeping that in mind, what is the thinking right now about whether or not either Osama bin Laden or Mullah Mohammed Omar may be among those who are in these pockets.

GRANGE: I don't think so, and again, that's just my feeling. I think you have some high-level Taliban, Al Qaeda leaders, lieutenants, but I think they already escaped. I think they're the type of leaders that are known for do as I say, not as I do. I think they are cowardly. I think they probably already exfiltrated into Pakistan or elsewhere.

HARRIS: General David Grange, thank you very much for the insights.

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