The U.S. military said yesterday that it continues to search for a Navy SEAL missing since last week, and officials confirmed that they had found the bodies of two other members of the Special Operations reconnaissance team that had come under attack during counterterrorism operations in the mountainous Konar province of Afghanistan.
U.S. officials have accounted for three members of the elite team that was working as part of Operation Red Wing, which is targeting members of al Qaeda and the Taliban in the mountains that border Pakistan. One of the SEALs was discovered alive over the weekend and was hospitalized in stable condition, while U.S. Central Command officially announced yesterday that two others had been found dead during search and rescue operations Monday.
The fourth member of the team was still unaccounted for as of last night.
The team had last been heard from June 28 after the members called for additional support while in combat in difficult terrain. At least two Chinook helicopters with reinforcements were on their way to rescue the SEALs when one of the MH-47 helicopters, carrying eight SEALs and eight Army crew members, crashed. Officials believe the helicopter was shot down by enemy forces, killing all 16 passengers.
Officials at the Pentagon declined to discuss details of the operation or the search yesterday, saying that the release of any information could jeopardize the mission. The search, in high altitude across treacherous terrain, will continue this week.
"There is an operation going on," said Lawrence Di Rita, a Pentagon spokesman. "There are lives at risk."
Di Rita, speaking at an afternoon news conference at the Pentagon, also said military officials are investigating a U.S. airstrike in the same Afghan province Friday that appears to have killed an undetermined number of civilians, possibly including women and children. The bombing, according to the military, targeted a building that was believed to be a base for terrorist operations as well as enemy fighters.
Afghan officials said as many as 17 civilians were killed when two successive bombs were dropped by U.S. warplanes, but Di Rita could not confirm that number, acknowledging that "some number of civilians" were killed in the strike on a small village.
"It was in the context of counterterrorist operations, and they're investigating it to understand exactly what happened, and to make sure that we can try and avoid these things in the future," Di Rita said. ". . . We take great strides to be precise in our military activities. I think we've been very precise. But these things do occur, and we obviously regret when they do."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government criticized the U.S. military yesterday for the bombing, concerned that such mistakes could destroy public support for the U.S. presence there. Jawed Ludin, Karzai's chief of staff, told the Associated Press that there is "no way . . . the killing of civilians can be justified."
"The president is extremely saddened and disturbed," Ludin said. "It's the terrorists we are fighting. It's not our people who should suffer."