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US searches for team in Afghanistan

Troops scour area where helicopter was shot down

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Hundreds of American troops, backed by helicopters, desperately scoured rugged Afghan mountains yesterday for an elite US military team missing in the same area where a US helicopter was shot down.

A purported Taliban spokesman said that militants captured one of the missing soldiers.

In central Afghanistan, Taliban rebels kidnapped and killed nine Afghan tribal leaders and sent a boy to offer to exchange the bodies for those of dead militants, an official said. The tribal leaders were among 25 people killed in three days of fighting in Uruzgan Province, yet another troubling sign for a nation hit by an upswing in violence as September elections near.

The US military team being missing in the remote eastern mountains worsened the already stinging blow suffered by the US military after 16 troops were killed Tuesday aboard the MH-47 Chinook chopper. It comes as the United States is scrambling to deal with an insurgency that threatens progress toward peace.

US forces were using ''every available asset" to search for the missing men, said Lieutenant Colonel Jerry O'Hara, a spokesman for the US military.

''Until we find our guys, they are still listed as unaccounted for, and everything we got in that area is oriented on finding the missing men," he said.

The missing troops are a small team from the special operations forces, said military officials, speaking yesterday on the condition of anonymity because rescue operations were still underway.

Though the team has been missing since Tuesday, the military had refrained from discussing their situation to prevent the Taliban from setting out in search of them. The downed helicopter had been trying to ''extract the soldiers" Tuesday when it went into the mountains near Asadabad, close to the Pakistani border, O'Hara said.

The Taliban statement that they kidnapped one of the men came from a purported spokesman, Mullah Latif Hakimi. ''One high-ranking American has been captured in fighting in the same area as the helicopter went down," he said. ''I won't give you any more details now."

Reacting to the statement, O'Hara said, ''We have no proof or evidence indicating anything other than the soldiers are missing."

Hakimi, who also said that insurgents shot down the helicopter, often calls news organizations to take responsibility for attacks, and the information frequently proves exaggerated or untrue. His exact tie to the Taliban leadership is unclear.

Asked what evidence the Taliban had that they were holding a US soldier, Hakimi replied: ''The Americans have announced themselves that some of their soldiers are missing. We don't need to tell lies. When we kill him, we will tell the Americans to go and get the body, and that will be the proof."

At the Pentagon, Lieutenant General James Conway, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the military did not have a full account of all ground troops involved in the operation, but he said no one had been classified as officially missing.

Rescuers recovered the remains of the 16 and were trying to identify them, the military said. A rocket-propelled grenade appears to have hit the chopper, Conway said, calling it ''a pretty lucky shot."

The loss of the helicopter follows three months of unprecedented fighting that has killed about 477 suspected insurgents, 47 Afghan police and soldiers, 134 civilians, and 45 US troops.

In Uruzgan Province, violence erupted when insurgents attacked a police checkpoint, and an hourlong gun battle left seven rebels dead Wednesday, provincial Governor Jan Mohammed Khan said.

On Thursday, the militants assaulted a nearby village in retaliation, kidnapping nine tribal elders and a 10-year-old boy, he said. The elders later were killed, and the boy was sent to the authorities with a message: If police hand over the bodies of the seven militants, the insurgents will release the bodies of the nine, Khan said.

Material from Reuters was included in this report.

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