An American helicopter was shot down over eastern Afghanistan and a US military base was attacked by rockets yesterday as ground fighting resumed in the biggest US-led ground attack of the Afghan war on Taliban and al-Qaeda forces.
The Army helicopter was taking part in an assault on suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters the Pentagon says were regrouping south of Gardez, capital of Paktia province, 150km from Kabul and 32km from the fighting.
Possibly as many as 10 Americans were killed in the helicopter downing, the MSNBC television network reported.
US defense officials declined to give details, indicating they were unsure whether a search-and-rescue mission for the troops had been completed.
It would be the first US aircraft taken down by enemy fire in the war, following accidental crashes of other craft since the anti-terror campaign opened in October
There were other signs of revived Taliban and al-Qaeda action in eastern provinces adjacent to the key snow-covered front line near Gardez.
Unconfirmed reports said that Canadian, Australian, Danish, German and French forces and planes had joined US troops in the operation around Gardez that started early on Saturday morning.
The Washington Post reported that upwards of 1,000 US and other Western military personnel were deployed near Gardez.
The morning rocket attack was on a US base near the city of Khost, about 70km southeast of Gardez and about 160km southeast of the Kabul.
Khost Shura (Council) spokesman Kamal Wazir said the airport was hit by two rockets and fire from men armed with Kalashnikov rifles. "The firing went on for five minutes from 3:20am," Wazir said by telephone from Khost.
"Shortly after the attack a US plane bombed the site of the firing," he added. "Our troops also rushed to the area but the gunmen had escaped."
Checkposts, manned by US soldiers, have been established on roads from Khost to Gardez to stop other al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters joining the Gardez fighting.
Afghan soldiers involved in the fighting said recently the US recruited Afghan soldiers from the Khost area for the Gardez operation. They have been transported to the battlefield by US military helicopters, the soldiers said.
US warplanes yesterday launched fierce bombing raids on the area around the high-altitude village of Shahi Kot where Afghan soldiers said either hundreds or thousands of al-Qaeda and Taliban forces are in bunkers and caves.
B-52s and F-16 fighters drop-ped bombs and plumes of smoke and machine gun fire were heard from the area. Residents of Gardez reported bombing throughout the day and said that at least six wounded Afghan fighters had been taken to hospitals. They also said a US spy plane was seen in the area.
Fierce resistance from rebel forces repulsed the US-led offensive on Saturday, forcing Afghan fighters and US advisers to withdraw close to Gardez.
Prior to the crash, the confirmed toll remained at one American and three Afghans killed -- all on Saturday in the first day of the ground assault. Another six Americans were injured in the fighting and airlifted out of the area.
That raised to 20 the number of US military personnel who have died since the Afghan campaign began.
A defense ministry official in Kabul said the US-led forces had resumed their ground attack yesterday in small numbers while the main forces waited for the bombing to soften up the Taliban troops.