July 1, 2005

U.S. troops missing, Taliban claims to hold one

By David Brunnstrom

KABUL (Reuters) - U.S. helicopters and hundreds of troopswere searching on Friday for soldiers who went missing inAfghanistan just before a helicopter coming to their aid wasshot down, while the Taliban claimed to be holding oneAmerican.

U.S. forces looking for members of the reconnaissance teamsince Tuesday's helicopter crash in mountainous Kunar provincebordering Pakistan have no reason to believe any of them havebeen killed or captured, U.S. spokesmen said.

Col. Jim Yonts said he could neither confirm nor deny aclaim by Taliban spokesman Abdul Latif Hakimi that insurgentskilled seven U.S. "spies" before the Chinook helicopter wasshot down. All 16 Special Forces soldiers aboard were killed.

On Friday Hakimi, whose information has often provedunreliable, said guerrillas in Kunar captured an Americansoldier on Wednesday who had been aboard the helicopter when itcrashed.

"He was trying to escape up the mountain when ourmujahideen (holy warriors) caught him," he said.

Asked what evidence the Taliban had that they were holdinga U.S. soldier, he replied: "The Americans have announcedthemselves that some of their soldiers are missing.

"We don't need to tell lies. When we kill him, we will tellthe Americans to go and get the body and that will be theproof."

While Hakimi's information has often been inaccurate in thepast, he has appeared well informed about the downing of thehelicopter, although the U.S. military has identified the Kunarinsurgents as more feared al Qaeda fighters rather thanTaliban.

Another U.S. spokesman, Lt. Col. Jerry O'Hara, said therewas no evidence soldiers had been killed, captured, hurt orwere hiding out. "The only thing we do know is they aremissing."

He declined to comment on a BBC report that quoted militaryofficials at the main U.S. base in Kunar as saying they had had"several indications" the troops were still alive.

The BBC said a number of Afghan guides working with theU.S. military were also missing.


The U.S. military initially said 17 soldiers had beenaboard the helicopter, but revised the figure down to 16 --eight from airborne special forces units and eight Navy Sealcommandos.

Yonts said the Chinook was sent in after the reconnaissanceteam requested support, but the team was not at the site whenthe aircraft arrived and was shot down. He could not say howmany were in the unit or whether they were also Special Forces.

Yonts said a large anti-insurgent operation codenamed"Redwing" was under way in Kunar to try to find the missingteam and complete recovery and investigation work at the crashsite.

The U.S. network ABC news said as many as 1,000 troops weretaking part. O'Hara declined to give numbers but said: "We areusing all available assets to find our missing."

Dozens of vehicles packed with U.S. and Afghan troops wereseen heading toward the crash site about 30 km (19 miles)northwest of Kunar's capital Asadabad and more than a dozenU.S. helicopters were seen overhead, an Afghan reporter theresaid.

Hundreds more troops had set up a camp in the Shorak valleyclose to the site of the crash, he said.

The U.S. military has said work at the crash site has beenhampered by the presence of militants in the area, cloudyweather and mountainous, heavily wooded terrain.

The crash was the biggest single combat blow to U.S. forcessince they overthrew the Taliban in 2001. The insurgents havestepped up their activity to try to derail Sept. 18 elections,the next big step in Afghanistan's difficult path to stability.

Elsewhere in the country, the threat to the elections wasunderescored by a series of Taliban attacks in which ninevillage elders, four policemen and two other civilians diedalong with 13 guerrillas, officials said.

In the bloodiest attack nine elders were killed in Landervillage in the central province of Uruzgan on Thursday night, aday after security forces killed seven guerrillas in an attackon a security post there, Uruzgan governor Jan Mohammad Khansaid.

He said the guerrillas released a 9-year-old boy to bringnews of the killings and to offer to exchange the bodies of theelders and the guerrillas.

In another insurgent attack on Thursday, two civilians werekilled when rockets aimed at a district office landed northeastof the city of Khost, in the southeast, police said.

(Additional reporting by Yousuf Azimy and Ismail Sameem inKandahar)