Obama pays tribute to 18 fallen soldiers

WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama has paid his respects to 18 Americans killed in Afghanistan, the first time he has honoured the fallen in this way.

The bodies of 15 US soldiers and three Drug Enforcement Agency agents were transferred to a mortuary on the base. The president also met their families privately.

His predecessor, George W Bush, visited the families of dead troops but never received the bodies at the base, in Dover, Delaware. Bush also did not go to military funerals, telling the military newspaper Stars and Stripes three years ago that he preferred to meet families privately. Obama was taken to the base, 161km from the White House, by the Marine One helicopter to greet the C-17 aircraft that had brought back the dead. He boarded the plane and watched as a military chaplain prayed for those who had passed away. There has been a ban on the media attending such events for 18 years, but this was lifted earlier this year for transfers when families involved give permission.

A small group of reporters were allowed to watch the final transfer, of Sergeant Dale R Griffin, from the plane to the van which would take it to the mortuary.

Obama saluted as the flag-draped case was moved. The returned remains were of troops killed this week in three separate incidents. On Monday, 10, including the three drug enforcement agents, died when a US military helicopter crashed in western Afghanistan. Four more US troops died when two helicopters crashed over southern Afghanistan.

The remaining eight soldiers were killed on Tuesday in roadside bomb attacks in Kandahar.