A U.S. military refueling aircraft with seven Marines on board crashed in southwestern Pakistan today, Pentagon officials said. There was no immediate word of survivors.
The Marine Corps KC-130 crashed into a mountain near the town of Shamsi in southwestern Pakistan, Maj. Chris Hughes, a spokesman for the U.S. Marines Corps, told a press briefing in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.
The aircraft had taken off from Jacobobad in Pakistan and was on a multi-mission flight when it went down, Hughes added.
He declined to provide the names of the seven people on board pending notification of the next of kin.
U.S. officials told ABCNEWS there was no indication the plane was shot down, but the incident was under investigation. There were no distress calls, sources said. The plane simply disappeared from radar.
Witnesses said they saw flames while the aircraft was making a final approach for a nighttime landing at the Shamsi Air Base west of the Pakistani city of Quetta in Baluchistan province. Rescuers rushed to the scene in the difficult mountainous terrain.
A $37 million refueling aircraft, the KC-130 is also used for troop and cargo delivery and evacuation missions.
U.S. Officials Informed of Release
The news of the crash came as Afghan officials in southern Afghanistan told ABCNEWS that U.S. officials in Kandahar were informed of the decision to release three former Taliban ministers before they were set free.
The release of the three senior Taliban leaders after their surrender on Tuesday sparked questions about why the former ministers — some of whom were responsible for harsh Taliban rulings and may have valuable information to offer — were released without being questioned by U.S. officials.
A spokesman for the Afghan Foreign Ministry in the capital of Kabul said the interim administration headed by Hamid Karzai was conducting an investigation into the release of the Taliban leaders to determine if there were any irregularities.
In a televised address to the nation from Kabul today, Karzai called for the establishment of a new national army and announced broad economic goals.
"Let us join together and make a national army," he said in the local Dari language before outlining plans to control inflation and promote economic growth.
The release of the three senior Taliban leaders has raised questions of Karzai's authority in the still partially lawless state and represents a missed opportunity for the United States.
Before news of their release, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged the value of having access to the Taliban leadership. "Obviously, individuals of that stature in the Taliban leadership are of great interest to the United States, and we would expect that they would be turned over, absolutely," he said.
But Afghan officials told ABCNEWS the men were released on the understanding that their whereabouts be known to Kandahar's governor, Gul Agha, and with the agreement that they would return to Kandahar if asked to.
There has been no confirmation from U.S. officials that they were aware the former ministers were being released.
A Well-Known Figure in Kabul
The three Taliban ministers included former Taliban Justice Minister Nooruddin Turabi, whose dreaded ministry enforced the Taliban's hard-line edicts, such as the blasting of two magnificent 5th-century Buddha statues in Afghanistan's central Bamiyan province despite worldwide condemnation.
Another minister who was allowed to return to his family was Mullah Saadudin, the former minister of mines and industry, whose ministry was responsible for the mining of emeralds, rubies, aquamarines and the precious royal-blue lapis lazuli, which helped fund the Taliban's war effort against the Northern Alliance.
During the Taliban's five years in power, Turabi was a well-known figure in Kabul and residents were familiar with the sight of the one-legged, one-eyed minister sitting outside the Justice Ministry to personally ensure that the Taliban's strict dress code was being adhered to.
The Pashtun mujahid, or Islamic fighter, lost his limb and eye while fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.
Turabi is believed to have had close contacts with the reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who personally approved the edicts put out by the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue.
On Tuesday, the Pentagon announced the capture of 14 al Qaeda members in Khost in eastern Afghanistan, two of whom were deemed of "interest" for their valuable intelligence.
The group was captured on Monday and two of the members were believed to be senior al Qaeda officials who were in possession of laptop computers, cell phones and weapons, Myers said.
Trying to Reduce Arms
Meanwhile, a two-pronged operation to reduce the number of arms in Afghanistan has been launched. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in Washington the United States was trying to purchase back various surface-to-air missiles, and the Afghan interim administration was trying to encourage private citizens to turn in their weapons across the country.
In Kabul today, Interior Minister Yunis Qanuni said the interim administration had ordered all armed men, except security personnel, to leave the city under the terms of a security agreement arrived at in Germany in November.
The focus of the U.S. search for indicted terrorist Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda members has shifted from Tora Bora to the region around Khost.
Over the past few days, U.S. jets have pounded the Zawar Kili complex in Khost — which is believed to have been a major al Qaeda training camp — and the Spin Boldak mountain range.
Body of First U.S. Soldier Killed in Action Arrives Home
In other developments:
The body of Green Beret Nathan Ross Chapman, the first U.S. soldier to be killed in action in Afghanistan,arrived in Washington state from Germany. Chapman was killed last Friday in Afghanistan by small arms fire.
A federal judge in Virginia heard arguments today on whether to allow TV coverage of the trial of alleged terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, also known as "the 20th hijacker" in the Sept. 11 attacks. U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema said she would rule on the motion no sooner than Tuesday. See Story
The United States and its allies are building an air base in Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic. It could eventually house 3,000 troops and serve as a hub for warplanes.
The United States has 364 al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners in custody. Myers said some of them would be airlifted to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the military is preparing a maximum-security detention facility.
ABCNEWS' Andrew Morse and Bill Blakemore in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Rebecca Cooper and Jason Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.