WASHINGTON (AP) — International forces killed the Taliban insurgents responsible for shooting down a U.S. helicopter and killing 38 U.S. and Afghan forces over the weekend, but they are still seeking the top insurgent leader they were going after in Saturday's mission, the top American commander in Afghanistan said Wednesday.
Brian Bill was among the American troops killed. He had hoped to finish graduate school and one day become an astronaut.
"He was the best. All of the other SEALs and Brian are heroes. They are the best of the best. We can never thank them enough for their sacrifice,” said Michael Perry, Bill’s stepfather.
Marine Corps Gen. John Allen told a Pentagon news conference that an F-16 airstrike Monday took out fewer than 10 insurgents involved in the attack on the Chinook helicopter.
“This does not ease our loss, but we must and we will continue to relentlessly pursue the enemy," Allen said.
In a separate statement Wednesday, the military said the Monday strike killed Taliban leader Mullah Mohibullah and the insurgent who fired the rocket-propelled grenade at the helicopter. The military said intelligence gained on the ground provided a high degree of confidence that the insurgent who fired the grenade was the person killed. It did not provide further details.
Death toll among Navy SEALs corrected
The Pentagon will put the death toll of Navy SEALs in last weekend's downing of a helicopter in Afghanistan at 17, according to two Defense Department officials, CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr reports.
The original figure provided to the news media for the number of SEALs killed was 22.
Officials say further information that has come in indicates that not all of the SEALs were assigned to a top-secret Naval unit as they originally said.
Officials now say there were 22 Navy personnel on the helicopter. Of that number, 15 were SEALs belonging to the top-secret unit that conducted the raid on Osama Bin Laden's compound in Pakistan. Two others were SEALs assigned to a regular Naval special operations unit.
Earlier Wednesday afternoon, the Pentagon announced it will release the names of all 30 service members killed in the crash in the next 24 hours.
The release had been in question because the dead were mostly covert special operations forces from the Navy and Air Force. Though some of their names had been made public by loved ones, the Special Operations Command asked the Pentagon not to release them, arguing it was a security risk.
Military officials defend decision to send helicopter
Allen defended the decision to send in the Chinook loaded with special operations forces to pursue insurgents escaping from the weekend firefight with Army Rangers in a dangerous region of Wardak province of eastern Afghanistan.
"We've run more than a couple of thousand of these night operations over the last year, and this is the only occasion where this has occurred," said Allen. "The fact that we lost this aircraft is not ... a decision point as to whether we'll use this aircraft in the future. It's not uncommon at all to use this aircraft on our special missions."
"I just had a feeling that if anything ever did happen to him it would be en route to something or coming back,” said J.B. Abbot, the cousin of killed Navy SEAL Matt Mills.
While officials believe the helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade, Allen said the military's investigation into the crash will also review whether small arms fire or other causes contributed to the crash.
Questions remain about why the troops were called in to aid other U.S. combatants engaged in a firefight, what they knew about the situation on the ground and what role the flight path or altitude may have played in the disastrous crash.
Allen and other officials would not discuss the details of the probe, but it no doubt will include a look at the insurgent threat and the instructions given to the special operations team that crowded into a big Chinook helicopter as it raced to assist other U.S. forces.
The investigation comes as the remains of the troops killed in the crash were returned Tuesday in an operation shrouded in secrecy by a Defense Department that has refused so far to release the names of the fallen and denied media coverage of the arrival at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
Two C-17 aircraft carrying the remains were met by President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the Joint Chiefs chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, and a number of other military leaders.
The investigation will review a number of basic crash questions, which will probably rule out such factors as the weather, terrain and mechanical issues, since military officials believe the helicopter was shot down. It also will look at the flight of the Chinook as it moved into the fighting zone. Chinooks are heavy cargo helicopters that do not have the agility of smaller, more maneuverable aircraft.
Pentagon decides to release names
Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said Wednesday Defense Secretary Leon Panetta considered the issue and decided to release the names. Lapan said the names should be made public within 24 hours.
Obama and other officials at Dover boarded the two C-17 aircraft to pay tribute to the fallen troops and then watched as 30 transfer cases draped in American flags and eight draped in Afghan flags were taken off the planes. There were several additional transfer cases on the planes, also carrying unidentified remains from the crash.
Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, appointed Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Colt to lead the investigation into the incident. Colt is deputy commander of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky.