KABUL - A helicopter crash killed nine troops from the NATO-led force in Afghanistan's south on Tuesday, making 2010 the deadliest year of the war for foreign troops just as attention turns to plans to start withdrawing them.
Violence is at its worst across Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001, with military and civilian casualties at record levels.
The crash came soon after one of the deadliest days of the year on Saturday, when the Taliban launched scores of attacks across the country in a bid to disrupt a parliamentary election that has been tarnished by a growing number of fraud complaints.
The country's election watchdog has received almost 3,000 formal complaints about the weekend poll and is mulling extending a Tuesday deadline for submitting grievances because voters and candidates are believed to have thousands more to lodge.
The poll, a test of credibility for the Afghan government, was being closely watched in Washington ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's planned war strategy review in December, which will likely examine the pace and scale of U.S. troop withdrawals.
Obama's Democrats also face difficult mid-term Congressional elections in November amid sagging public support for the war. Record troop casualties and rampant electoral fraud in Afghanistan will likely only make their task harder. The crash happened in the volatile southeast, the heartland of the Taliban. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) declined to immediately give more details about the crash site or the nationalities of the dead.
Mohammad Jan Rasulyar, a spokesman for the governor of southeastern Zabul province, said the aircraft came down there. U.S. troops form the largest contingents in the area.
One ISAF service member, an Afghan soldier and a U.S. civilian were injured and were taken to hospital for treatment, ISAF said in a statement.
ISAF said also there were no reports of enemy fire before the crash. A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said insurgents had shot down the plane but the Islamists often make exaggerated and unsubstantiated claims about attacks on foreign troops.
The deaths take the toll so far in 2010 to at least 529, according to monitoring website iCasualties.org. Last year, the previous deadliest of the war, 521 foreign troops were killed.
At least 2,097 foreign troops have been killed since the war began, about 60 percent of them American.
Violence in recent months has soared in recent months as the Taliban spread the insurgency out of their heartland in the south and east into once relatively calm areas in the north and west.
At the same time, foreign troops have been increasing the reach and scale of operations to seek out the Taliban, especially in Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south, and U.S. commanders have warned of more tough times ahead.
There are now almost 150,000 foreign troops fighting a growing Taliban-led insurgency, supporting about 300,000 Afghan security forces. Obama ordered in an extra 30,000 troops late last year, the last units of which arrived this month.
Saturday's flawed election, in which widespread fraud and violence were reported, has only underscored the challenges facing U.S. and other NATO nations as they decide how long they will keep troops in Afghanistan.
The complaints have ranged from vote-stuffing and intimidation to repeat voting and a shortage of ballot papers in some locations. Both President Hamid Karzai and the top U.N. diplomat in Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, have said it is too early to describe the poll as a success.
Afghanistan's endemic corruption has long been a point of friction between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Western allies. Transparency Internation ranks Afghanistan as one of the world's two most corrupt countries, ahead only of Somalia.
Washington believes graft weakens the central government and its ability to build up institutions like the Afghan security forces, which in turn determines when troops will leave. Obama has pledged to start drawing down U.S. forces from July 2011.
Dutch troops ended their mission in August and several European and other nations are under growing public pressure to bring their troops home.
Aircraft crashes are not infrequent in Afghanistan. In October 2009, two helicopter crashes killed 11 U.S. soldiers and three U.S. civilians.
(Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Miral Fahmy)