Taliban say 20-25 U.S. forces killed

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KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's ruling Taliban say their men have killed 20 to 25 U.S. commandos on their first lightning strike on Afghan soil, and insist that they have downed a helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade.

The United States has said two service personnel were killed and three injured when a helicopter crashed while attempting a landing at an airbase in Pakistan and dismissed Taliban statements that they shot it down.

"We have for sure shot down the U.S. helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade when it was taking off on the night of the attack," Education Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi said on Sunday, referring to Friday's midnight strike by elite U.S. special forces.

"There were four helicopters," he said in the raid to the south of Kandahar, powerbase of the fundamentalist Taliban.

"We believe that between 20 or 25 of the American fighters have perished in the incident," he told Reuters.

"Our message to the Americans is that if they want to be safe they mustn't come to Afghanistan," Muttaqi said.

MET OBJECTIVES

But U.S. defence officials said the 100 commandos in the quick in-and-out raid met their objectives, attacking a command-and-control centre and an airfield.

They met little resistance and caused an unknown number of casualties while two U.S. servicemen suffered non-life threatening injuries in the parachute jump, the officials said.

The raid by came nearly two weeks after Washington began a ferocious air blitz on Afghanistan, dropping tonnes of bombs and missiles in pursuit of Osama bin Laden, accused of masterminding the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

"Their decision on war is a wrong one. It is an un-ideal aim and they should not sacrifice themselves for it and they should not shed the blood of Afghans," Muttaqi said.

The ruling Taliban was getting set to confront any more U.S. ground incursions, which the Pentagon has promised are coming.

"Afghans have full preparations for a ground attack and Americans will a suffer high death toll in the ground assault," he said.

PLANES OVER KABUL

Witnesses in the capital, Kabul, said Sunday morning raids by U.S. planes had appeared to target the entrenched positions of the Taliban front line to the north of Kabul, facing forces of the opposition Northern Alliance.

Officials declined to comment and casualties and the extent of any damage were not known.

Taliban fighters were now firing at the war planes mostly with mobile truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns that are easier to use to evade attack.

Most of their ground air-defences have already been destroyed in two weeks of U.S. air attacks, the Pentagon has said.

The aircraft roared overhead on Sunday morning, just hours after the ruling Taliban moved fighters through the streets of the curfew-bound capital on Saturday night.

Power was cut as an aircraft that sounded like a helicopter or a propeller plane flew low overhead twice and tanks rumbled down the streets accompanied by the sound of plain chant religious hymns, apparently broadcast by loudspeakers.Sporadic firing could be heard in parts of the city, with Taliban even opening up with small arms fire at the aircraft overhead. The shooting later died down.

U.S. statements the helicopter crashed in Pakistan were backed up by a Pakistani official at Dalbandin airport who said the helicopter crashed in the area.

The airport, about 60 km (37 miles) from the Afghan border, is being used by U.S. forces to provide logistical support for the Afghan operation. The raid was the latest phase of a campaign that the United States says will only end with the death or capture of Osama bin Laden and his associates and the overthrow of the Taliban rulers who have been protecting him since 1996.

The Taliban remained defiant, their only diplomatic envoy saying they might as well give up their Muslim faith as give up the world's most notorious "guest".

The Americans have blitzed airports, Taliban military bases and training camps operated by the al Qaeda network, but bin Laden and Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar remained safe, officials say.