By Joshua Partlow and Javed Hamdard
Monday, July 26, 2010; A07
KABUL -- One U.S. Navy service member was killed in a shootout with Taliban fighters in the eastern Afghan province of Logar and another is in insurgent custody, a Taliban spokesman and Afghan officials said Sunday.
NATO officials have not confirmed the reports and still characterize the two men as missing since they drove off from their Kabul base Friday.
On the second full day of a search for the missing Americans, Afghan officials said U.S. forces have deployed from helicopters, have set up vehicle checkpoints and were going house to house in Logar. Afghan army officials said they have two battalions involved in the search; U.S. military officials did not specify the size of their search operation.
"There is a tremendous amount of effort going on to find them," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Kabul. "We have a large number of forces focused on the return of these two service members."
The radical Islamist Taliban movement has stepped up attacks this year, raising the violence level in Afghanistan to its highest point in the war. A senior U.S. military official said the Taliban on Saturday seized the center of Barg-e-Matal district in Nurestan province, a remote mountainous area from where U.S. troops have withdrawn to focus on more populated areas. NATO said Sunday that Afghan army commandos, along with U.S. Special Forces troops, killed a "large group of insurgent fighters" near Awlagul village, which is in the same district.
Afghan police and army commanders in Logar said in telephone interviews that U.S. troops have recovered the body of one of the sailors and are searching cars and houses for the surviving one. The commander of an Afghan battalion in Logar said U.S. troops distributed photographs of the two men in the province and a number to call for information. He said the men were white and appeared to be more than 40 years old.
Afghan officials and a Taliban spokesman known as Zabiullah Mujahid said the two Americans were passing through Charkh district in an armored sport-utility vehicle on Friday evening when they were stopped by Taliban fighters.
"We wanted to arrest them alive. But they showed resistance. And the mujaheddin fired back," Mujahid said. "We still have one of them with us."
About 15 insurgents were involved in the attack, Mujahid said. They fired Kalashnikov rifles and later torched the vehicle, he said.
Samer Gul Rashid, the Charkh district chief, said that U.S. and Afghan forces found the body of one of the sailors in a garden and that American troops have the body. He added that the surviving American was slightly injured in the hand; Mujahid denied that the sailor was hurt.
"It's too early to say about our demands. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan's leadership will make a decision," Mujahid said, referring to the Taliban's elaborate alternative government.
The first hours and days of any rescue operation are the most critical, as insurgents tend to move prisoners rapidly, often to sanctuaries across Pakistan's border. NATO officials said they will not release any more information at this time about the identities of the missing men or the circumstances of their disappearance.
There have been conflicting reports about the circumstances. Initial news reports said the Taliban wanted a prisoner exchange; some officials, such as Logar police chief Ghulam Mustafa Mohseni, think this is still the case. Others, such as Logar provincial council chief Abdul Hakeem Suleimankhel, maintain that the Taliban has made no demands.
Suleimankhel said he has taken charge of one of two Afghan committees involved in negotiating with the Taliban about the missing Americans. The other is led by the local ulema, or religious leadership.
"So far, from the Taliban side, there has been no deadline, no conditions for their release," said Din Mohammad Darwish, a spokesman for Logar's governor.
Staff writer Rajiv Chandrasekaran in Kabul contributed to this report.