Two Marines Killed in Afghanistan Helicopter Crash

Two U.S. Marines are dead and five others injured, two of them critically, in the crash of their helicopter in a high mountain area of Afghanistan today.

Army Capt. Tom Bryant said all five of the injured Marines were evacuated from the crash site to Bagram air base near the capital, Kabul, and then flown to another U.S. base by a C-130 transport plane.

The cause of the crash has not been confirmed, but there have been no reports of hostile fire.

The CH-53E Super Stallion left Bagram air base near Kabul on a resupply mission with another helicopter and later made a "hard landing" about 40 miles to the south, Bryant said, citing a Marine statement.

"The site was quickly secured," Bryant said. "We quickly got medical personnel and others on the ground, got them evacuated back here. We have a robust medical treatment capability here."

Bryant would not say which U.S. forces were being resupplied. Small units of Special Forces have been scouring the country for leaders of Osama bin Laden's terror network.

At the U.S. military base in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan, Marine spokesman 1st Lt. James Jarvis said the identities of those involved would not be released until their families were notified.

The only other fatal crash of a U.S. military aircraft during the war occurred Oct. 19, when an Army helicopter crashed in Pakistan, killing two Army Rangers.

An American soldier was killed in an ambush in eastern Afghanistan earlier this month, and a Central Intelligence Agency was killed during a prison uprising in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif in November.

Changing of the Guard

Meanwhile, U.S. Army forces Saturday took control from the Marines of the United States' largest military base in Afghanistan, as the interim leader of the war-torn country traveled abroad for the first time.

The Army's 101st Airborne paratrooper division relieved Marines at the U.S. base at Kandahar airport without an official ceremony.

Most of the Marines, who at one point numbered about 2,000 at the base, are returning to their ships, although they will remain ready for deployment on special missions, a U.S. official told the Associated Press. It was left unclear how many Marines would remain at the Kandahar base.

There still is unrest in Afghanistan, with a newly installed Afghan national government trying to disarm the populace and calm local rivalries, and with suspected Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden and former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar still unaccounted for.

On Friday, local police in Kandahar began a crackdown on arms in an effort to strengthen the new Afghan administration's control of city. Reporters in the city said police were searching cars, frisking people and checking documents at checkpoints across the city. Once the spiritual and ideological heart of the Taliban, Kandahar is a city with a majority Pashtun population and the city is believed to be awash with firearms.

First Foreign Trip

Despite pockets of instability at home, Interim Afghan Prime Minister Hamid Karzai on Friday left on his first foreign trip — to Saudi Arabia, China, the United States and Japan, where he will attend a conference in Tokyo for Afghanistan funding and reconstruction.

In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel published Saturday, Karzai said the world must come through with funding to help Afghanistan rebuild itself, or it would again become a "sanctuary for terrorists."

On Saturday, Karzai met in Riyadh with King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi leaders promised "in principle to contribute to the reconstruction of Afghanistan," an Afghan diplomat told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. The amount was not immediately known.

Karzai's trip to the oil-rich Gulf kingdom was widely believed to be a diplomatic sign that his administration is looking to heal the wounds of the past for a better, reconstructed future. Saudi Arabia was one of the few countries to recognize Afghanistan's ousted Taliban government, and Saudi private funds helped underwrite the hard-line Islamic regime as well as al Qaeda operations.

The kingdom also is the birthplace of al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. Many Afghans believe bin Laden's global terrorist network virtually hijacked their country for five years and they hold his al Qaeda organization responsible for the powerful influence of non-Afghans in the Central Asian state during the Taliban years.

Empty Coffers

More than two months after the Taliban was ousted from power, Karzai's administration is badly strapped for cash and most government employees have not been paid in months while basic services, such as telephone and transportation, are in tatters after two decades of civil war.

After his visit to Saudi Arabia, Karzai will attend an international donors' conference in Tokyo beginning on Jan. 21, where representatives of nearly 60 governments as well as international organizations are expected to pledge reconstruction aid and set economic policy terms for his administration.

After the conference, Karzai will pay an official visit to China, a key player in the region.

And on Jan. 28, Karzai is expected to meet with President Bush during a trip to the United States, where he will also attend the World Economic Forum in New York.

Report: Saudi Wants U.S. Troops Out

In other developments:

Amid speculation that the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks may have died, the commander of the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan told a press briefing Friday that America eventually would get Osama bin Laden. "I honesty don't know where he is," said Gen. Tommy Franks, head of U.S. Central Command. "But I'll tell you this: The world is not a large enough place for him to hide in." Franks said the focus of U.S. troops in Afghanistan remains on gathering intelligence from al Qaeda caves and complexes and searching for remaining Taliban and al Qaeda soldiers.

A federal judge in Alexandria, Va., ruled that television cameras and audio coverage will not be allowed in the trial of alleged Sept. 11 attack conspiractor Zacarias Moussaoui. See Story