By Mirwais Harooni
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan security forces launched an operation on Wednesday to rescue 18 people captured by Taliban insurgents after their helicopter made an emergency landing in territory under the militants' control, the Ministry of Defence said.
The Taliban said they had shot down the helicopter and captured 15 people.
Moldova's acting prime minister said the helicopter was operated by a Moldovan company and it had 21 people on board including a Moldovan crew of three. He said he had asked the United States for help to rescue the crew although one of them appeared to have been killed, along with two other people.
The MI-17 helicopter made an emergency landing in the northern province of Faryab on Tuesday after it developed a technical problem, the Afghan ministry said.
"The insurgents then attacked and as a result two soldiers and one member of the crew were killed ... 18 people were captured," the ministry said in a statement. "Security forces have started a clearance operation to free the captives."
The Taliban, fighting to expel foreign forces and bring down the U.S.-backed government, have made gains over the past year outside their southern and eastern heartlands and into northern areas including Faryab.
The ministry did not identify the captives or say if they were soldiers or civilians, or if any foreigners were among them.
The Taliban said five people had been killed and they had captured 15 who had managed to get out of the burning helicopter, most of them soldiers.
"The captured people have been taken to a safe place and an investigation has started," Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi said in a statement. He made no mention of foreigners.
Moldova's acting prime minister, Gheorghe Brega, said his government had unconfirmed reports that one Moldovan was among three people the militants shot dead.
The Moldovan Defence Ministry said the helicopter crash-landed after being shot at. The director general of Valan ICC, the Moldovan company which operated the MI-17, told reporters the helicopter had been carrying members of the Afghan security forces engaged in counter-terrorism operations.
(Additional reporting by Alexander Tanas; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Mark Heinrich)