The fiery crash of a military helicopter was the deadliest incident for Americans in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the U.S. military said Thursday, identifying 13 of the 16 fatalities as American service personnel.
Three others killed in Wednesday's crash were U.S. government contractors, the military said in a statement. Their nationalities weren't released. Two more U.S. soldiers were missing. The names of the victims were withheld pending notification of next of kin.
The CH-47 Chinook went down in bad weather near Ghazni city, 130 kilometers (80 miles) southwest of the capital, Kabul, as it headed for the main U.S. base at Bagram after a mission in the insurgent-plagued south.
"Recovery work at the crash site will resume upon the arrival of a mortuary affairs team," U.S. spokeswoman Lt. Cindy Moore said. With the weather still grim, the team was traveling to Ghazni by road, she said.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, frequently flown around the country in U.S. military helicopters to protect him from assassination, expressed his condolences.
"I deeply deplore this incident, which took the lives of people contributing to stability and security in Afghanistan," Karzai said in an e-mailed statement.
The military said the transport helicopter was returning to Bagram on Wednesday afternoon when controllers lost radio contact. A second Chinook made it safely back to the sprawling base north of Kabul.
Afghan officials said the helicopter plunged into a patch of flat desert five kilometers (three miles) outside the city and burst into flames. Television footage shot Wednesday showed tangled parts of the smoldering wreckage next to a brick factory.
Abdul Rahman Sarjang, the Ghazni police chief, said his men and U.S. troops were guarding the crash site on Thursday while other American soldiers collected parts of the helicopter.
He said more than a dozen bodies, some of them badly burned, had been taken to a small American base nearby. The thick cloud and strong winds which may have contributed to the crash were preventing U.S. helicopters from flying the remains to Bagram, he said.
"The main section was very badly burned because it was near the fuel tanks. the pieces are all over the place," Sarjang said.
Sarjang said witnesses reported one of the helicopter's two rotors looked damaged before it hit the ground. He said he saw no sign of enemy fire.
The U.S. military said they were investigating the incident.
According to U.S. government statistics, at least 135 American soldiers have now died in and around Afghanistan since Operation Enduring Freedom, the U.S.-led war on terrorism, began after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in America.
Accidents have proven almost as deadly as attacks from Taliban-led insurgents, including a string of helicopter crashes and explosions caused by mines and munitions left over from the country's long wars.
The previous worst incident in Afghanistan was an accidental explosion at an arms dump in Ghazni province that killed eight American soldiers in January 2004.
Last November, six Americans - three civilian crew members and three U.S. soldiers - died when their plane crashed in the Hindu Kush mountains.
About 17,000 U.S. soldiers are in Afghanistan battling a Taliban-led insurgency and training a new Afghan army.
STEPHEN GRAHAM, Associated Press Writer