US toll in Afghan fighting mounts
56 killed in month; 2 believed taken by Taliban forces
KABUL, Afghanistan — Two US Navy personnel disappeared in a dangerous area of eastern Afghanistan, and the Taliban claimed to have captured them, NATO and Afghan officials said yesterday. Elsewhere, five US service members died in separate bombings in the south, bringing to 56 the number of Americans killed so far this month.
The latest US casualties put July on course to become the deadliest month for Americans since the start of the nearly nine-year war. Sixty Americans were killed in Afghanistan in June, as US and international forces step up operations against the Taliban in the south.
Rising American casualties are eroding support for the war even as President Obama has sent thousands of reinforcements to try to turn back the Taliban, who would have a potent propaganda tool with the capture of two US troops.
The disappearance of the Navy crew members prompted a massive search. The coalition began radio broadcasts offering a $20,000 reward for information leading to their return.
NATO said the two left their compound in Kabul in civilian clothes and a civilian vehicle Friday afternoon. They were last seen in the Charkh district of Logar Province, said Samer Gul, district chief.
A NATO official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of search operations, confirmed the two were Navy personnel, but would not identify them or their unit to avoid jeopardizing the search.
The official said it was unclear what the two were doing. He would not say whether they were on official business.
“Every available asset is being brought to bear’’ to find them, said Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Breasseale, a NATO spokesman.
Afghan officials in Logar Province said the two service members were driving an armored, four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicle when they were captured in Matinai, a village in Charkh. A spokesman for Logar’s governor, Din Mohammad Darwish, said the area is “totally under control of the enemy.’’
A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, called Afghan reporters in Logar yesterday and told them that the militant movement had captured the two Americans and killed one of them, according to an Afghan reporter and the governor’s spokesman. NATO officials said they could not confirm the statements of the Afghan officials or the Taliban.
The five US troops were killed yesterday in bomb attacks in southern Afghanistan. Four of the troops died in one bomb blast, and one was killed in a separate attack, NATO officials said.
The deaths pushed NATO’s death toll in July to 75 troops, including the 56 Americans. Last month was the deadliest of the war for NATO troops, with more than 100 killed, including 60 Americans.
US commanders attribute the growing violence to the push into Taliban strongholds where the coalition previously had a minimal presence. Others say that the Taliban has grown stronger by the year and that it now controls wide swaths of the country.
Kidnappings of US troops in Afghanistan are rare.
The only US service member known to be in Taliban captivity is Specialist Bowe Bergdahl of Hailey, Idaho, who disappeared June 30, 2009, in neighboring Paktika Province, an area heavily infiltrated by the Haqqani network, which has deep links to Al Qaeda. He has since appeared on videos posted on Taliban websites confirming his captivity.
New York Times reporter David Rhode was also kidnapped in Logar Province while trying to make contact with a Taliban commander. He and an Afghan colleague escaped in June 2009 after seven months in captivity.
Gul, the district chief in Charkh, said the sport utility vehicle was seen Friday night by a guard working for the district chief’s office. The guard tried to flag down the vehicle, carrying a driver and a passenger, but it kept going, Gul said.
“They stopped in the main bazaar of Charkh district. The Taliban saw them in the bazaar,’’ Gul said. “They didn’t touch them in the bazaar, but notified other Taliban that a four-wheel vehicle was coming their way.’’
The second group of Taliban tried to stop the vehicle, but when the SUV didn’t halt, insurgents opened fire and the occupants shot back, he said.
“Maybe they wanted to go to Paktia Province or to the American base, but they came down the wrong road toward Charkh,’’ Gul said. “They didn’t pay any attention to the police. Otherwise we could have kept them from going into an insecure area, and now this unfortunate incident has happened.’’
Mohammad Nasir Medaruz, director of a radio station in Logar called Meli Pegham, or “National Message,’’ said he had received a call from coalition officials asking that he broadcast a message offering $10,000 for information about the whereabouts of each missing service member. “I told them that Logar is not a safe area and if I broadcast that, I could get attacked,’’ Medaruz said.
Yesterday in the same district in Logar, the manager of an Afghan construction company and his driver were kidnapped, according to Darwish.
On Tuesday, an international conference in Kabul endorsed President Hamid Karzai’s plan for Afghan security forces to assume responsibility for protecting the country by the end of 2014. President Obama has pledged to begin removing US troops starting in July 2011, although he has linked the drawdown to security conditions on the ground.
Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.