Insurgents shot down a NATO helicopter and killed four American troops in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday, the military said, in the latest bloodshed ahead of a major operation in the militants' heartland.
The violence came as Afghanistan's ousted intelligence chief warned in an interview with The Associated Press that Afghan President Hamid Karzai's strategy of seeking reconciliation with the Taliban was dangerously flawed.
The deaths, and that of a British soldier killed by an improvised bomb in a separate attack on Wednesday, take NATO's toll to 29 deaths in nine days, according to an AP count. The United States, whose some 94,000 troops vastly outnumber the rest of the allies' contributions in Afghanistan, has lost 17 service members since Sunday.
It is part of a spike in violence that comes as U.S. commanders put the final touches on a plan to secure the Taliban's southern heartland of Kandahar, an operation they hope will turn the tide of the nearly nine-year-old war.
United States troops strength has been growing in southern Afghanistan as part of President Barack Obama's surge strategy to try to bring an end to the nearly 9-year-old insurgency, and commanders have warned that more casualties can be expected. NATO said four service members died "after their helicopter was brought down by hostile fire" in Helmand province, part of a volatile region where Taliban still hold sway despite the U.S. buildup. U.S. military spokesman in Kabul, Lt. Col. Joseph T. Breasseale, confirmed the four troops killed were Americans. Helmand provincial spokesman Daoud Ahmadi said the helicopter was shot down about midday in Sangin district during an operation involving NATO and Afghan security forces.