KABUL (Reuters) -- A British Tornado fighter jet crashed at a major NATO base in southern Afghanistan on July 20, officials said, the third aircraft mishap in as many days as foreign forces press their new offensives against the Taliban.
With military casualties rising, Afghanistan's growing insurgency is also taking a heavy toll on civilians. In the remote west, 12 Afghan traders were killed when their van hit a roadside bomb most likely meant for Afghan or foreign troops.
NATO spokesman Captain Glen Parent said the Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 aircraft crashed shortly after take-off at the sprawling Kandahar Air Field, the main military base for foreign troops in Kandahar province, the birthplace of the Taliban.
NATO officials said the crash was not the result of an attack by insurgents. However, Taliban spokesman Qari Muhammad Yousuf said the insurgents had shot down a NATO aircraft near the Kandahar base, killing several soldiers.
The Taliban routinely claim responsibility for downing U.S. and NATO aircraft, usually with inflated casualty numbers.
Speaking to Reuters by a satellite telephone from an undisclosed location, Yousuf said foreign troops have been suffering "huge casualties" in Afghanistan.
July has indeed become the deadliest month for foreign troops in the 8-year-old war after thousands of U.S. Marines and British soldiers launched major new offensives in the Taliban heartland of Helmand, adjacent to Kandahar.
The offensives are the first major operation under U.S. President Barack Obama's new regional strategy to defeat the Taliban and its militant Islamist allies in the region and stabilise Afghanistan.
But growing battlefield casualties, and warnings from commanders that more are to come in heavy fighting ahead, have started raising questions at home about tactics and force levels.
British troops have suffered their greatest battlefield losses since the 1980s Falklands War, including eight killed in a single day, prompting debate at home over whether soldiers are adequately equipped and whether they should be there at all.
British commanders are warning that an extra 700 troops sent to help secure the August 20 presidential election will have to stay longer and even more may be needed if the goal of seizing ground from the Taliban and then holding it is to be achieved.
Concern is also growing at the lack of adequate Afghan troops available to hold ground once it is taken, adding to pressure on foreign forces even as thousands more troops and trainers are poured into the country.
Crashed In Flames
The two-seater Tornado crashed in flames inside the Kandahar base, Parent said, but the fire was later extinguished.
"It had British crew. They both ejected safely from the aircraft and are being treated for minor injuries," Parent said.
The Tornado is an aircraft capable of flying at low supersonic speeds and is used as a day-or-night attack aircraft able to fly at low altitudes. It can drop 1,000-pound bombs and carries Sidewinder and Storm Shadow missiles.
On July 19, a Soviet-built Mi-8 transport helicopter crashed at the Kandahar base, killing 16 of the 20 people on board, the second fatal crash involving a Soviet-era helicopter in the south in less than a week.
In the east, a U.S. F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jet crashed on July 18, with both crew members killed.
In western Farah province, witnesses and officials said 12 men were killed and five wounded as a van carrying traders drove along a road linking two districts on July 19.
"I saw 12 men were killed and four were wounded," Abdul Razzaq Samadi, a local tribal chief who was at the scene of the blast, told Reuters. "I took four wounded men to the hospital. Their condition was not good."
Highly destructive home-made bombs planted in the road are by far the most deadly weapons used by the Taliban and other insurgents, frequently killing civilians as well as the convoys and patrols of security forces they traditionally target.
In northern Kunduz province, German soldiers shot and killed two Afghan civilians, including a child, when their car's driver ignored warnings to stop as they approached a military post on July 19, the German Defence Ministry said on its website.
Another three people in the car were seriously wounded.
The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan this month issued a new tactical directive aimed at reducing civilian casualties, often caused by air strikes, a source of great friction between Kabul and its Western allies.