KABUL (Reuters) – U.S. helicopters and hundreds of troops were searching on Friday for soldiers who went missing in Afghanistan just before a helicopter coming to their aid was shot down, while the Taliban claimed to be holding one American.
U.S. forces looking for members of the reconnaissance team since Tuesday’s helicopter crash in mountainous Kunar province bordering Pakistan have no reason to believe any of them have been killed or captured, U.S. spokesmen said.
Col. Jim Yonts said he could neither confirm nor deny a claim by Taliban spokesman Abdul Latif Hakimi that insurgents killed seven U.S. “spies” before the Chinook helicopter was shot down. All 16 Special Forces soldiers aboard were killed.
On Friday Hakimi, whose information has often proved unreliable, said guerrillas in Kunar captured an American soldier on Wednesday who had been aboard the helicopter when it crashed.
“He was trying to escape up the mountain when our mujahideen (holy warriors) caught him,” he said.
Asked what evidence the Taliban had that they were holding a U.S. soldier, he 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.”
While Hakimi’s information has often been inaccurate in the past, he has appeared well informed about the downing of the helicopter, although the U.S. military has identified the Kunar insurgents as more feared al Qaeda fighters rather than Taliban.
Another U.S. spokesman, Lt. Col. Jerry O’Hara, said there was no evidence soldiers had been killed, captured, hurt or were hiding out. “The only thing we do know is they are missing.”
He declined to comment on a BBC report that quoted military officials 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 the U.S. military were also missing.
The U.S. military initially said 17 soldiers had been aboard the helicopter, but revised the figure down to 16 — eight from airborne special forces units and eight Navy Seal commandos.
Yonts said the Chinook was sent in after the reconnaissance team requested support, but the team was not at the site when the aircraft arrived and was shot down. He could not say how many 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 missing team and complete recovery and investigation work at the crash site.
The U.S. network ABC news said as many as 1,000 troops were taking part. O’Hara declined to give numbers but said: “We are using all available assets to find our missing.”
Dozens of vehicles packed with U.S. and Afghan troops were seen heading toward the crash site about 30 km (19 miles) northwest of Kunar’s capital Asadabad and more than a dozen U.S. helicopters were seen overhead, an Afghan reporter there said.
Hundreds more troops had set up a camp in the Shorak valley close to the site of the crash, he said.
The U.S. military has said work at the crash site has been hampered by the presence of militants in the area, cloudy weather and mountainous, heavily wooded terrain.
The crash was the biggest single combat blow to U.S. forces since they overthrew the Taliban in 2001. The insurgents have stepped 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 was underescored by a series of Taliban attacks in which nine village elders, four policemen and two other civilians died along with 13 guerrillas, officials said.
In the bloodiest attack nine elders were killed in Lander village in the central province of Uruzgan on Thursday night, a day after security forces killed seven guerrillas in an attack on a security post there, Uruzgan governor Jan Mohammad Khan said.
He said the guerrillas released a 9-year-old boy to bring news of the killings and to offer to exchange the bodies of the elders and the guerrillas.
In another insurgent attack on Thursday, two civilians were killed when rockets aimed at a district office landed northeast of the city of Khost, in the southeast, police said.
(Additional reporting by Yousuf Azimy and Ismail Sameem in Kandahar)