WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Pentagon blamed poor weather in Afghanistan for the crash of a U.S. special forces helicopter, injuring four crew members, and the loss of an unmanned spy plane.
The air campaign against al-Qaida terrorists and the ruling Taliban that began Oct. 7 moved forward Saturday. U.S. bombers pounded Taliban front lines north of Kabul, the capital. Marine Harrier jump jets joined the attack for the first time from the amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was in Moscow and Tajikistan on Saturday, part of a five-nation trip that also included stops in Uzbekistan, Pakistan and India.
The four crew members were taken out of Afghanistan, although Pentagon spokesman Air Force Maj. Mike Halbig declined to say exactly where. The injuries were not considered life-threatening and the crew was receiving medical care, Halbig said.
Their helicopter crashed at about 1:30 p.m. EST Friday. The injured were rescued by a second helicopter that had accompanied the initial mission. Halbig would not provide details on the mission.
Their mission had been to retrieve a sick soldier, a senior military officer said Saturday. The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he could not offer any more information.
F-14 Tomcats from the USS Theodore Roosevelt, one of the U.S. aircraft carriers off Pakistan, were sent to destroy the damaged helicopter that crashed.
Such a search-and-destroy mission would only take place if the items on the helicopter were considered extremely sensitive and the U.S. military did not want it to fall into enemy hands.
Special forces teams are helping anti-Taliban rebels with training and tactics and are directing American warplanes to Taliban targets. The United States has troops in Uzbekistan, including members of the Army's 10th Mountain Division.
Rumsfeld said last week that hundreds of special forces teams were ``cocked and ready'' to infiltrate Afghanistan, but he complained that freezing rain, fog, and heavy fire at a landing area was hampering the effort.
Halbig denied Taliban claims that they shot down the helicopter, and that dozens of soldiers were involved.
``It's false. As many claims with the Taliban, it is simply not true,'' he said.
The unarmed Air force RQ-1B Predator was reported missing Friday at approximately 2:15 p.m. EST. ``Preliminary reports indicate that severe weather contributed to the loss,'' said a statement released at the Pentagon and issued by the U.S. Central Command.
For days, Pentagon officials have complained that freezing rain and fog have hampered operations in northern Afghanistan.
Halbig said there were no indications that the Predator had been shot down, either, but that ``severe weather contributed to the loss.''
The United States said it was the military's first unmanned aerial craft lost in the anti-terrorism effort in Afghanistan.
In late September, Rumsfeld acknowledged in that another such craft had apparently gone down. That aircraft, however, was believed to have been operated not by the Pentagon but a different government agency.
During his visit Saturday to Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia that borders Afghanistan, the defense secretary said a special assessment team would look into possible cooperation with Tajikistan beyond the current approval for U.S. overflights.
Rumsfeld reported no immediate agreement on any other military cooperation after his talks with President Emomali Rakhmonov and other officials.