KABUL (Reuters) – Two U.S. special forces soldiers who went missing in eastern Afghanistan a week ago have been found dead and one rescued, but the whereabouts of a fourth remains unknown, the U.S. military said on Tuesday.
The bodies of the soldiers, part of a four-man Navy SEAL reconnaissance team that went missing during fighting with militants in Kunar province, were found during a combat operation there on Monday, a military statement said.
The soldiers went missing last Tuesday just before a U.S. helicopter sent to rescue them was shot down by militants, killing all 16 U.S. Special Forces soldiers aboard.
“The two service members were taken to the U.S. military hospital at Bagram Airfield where they were pronounced dead,” it said referring to the main U.S. base to the north of Kabul.
“Another member of the force was located and airlifted to the Bagram hospital with non-life-threatening injuries,” it said referring to a rescue first confirmed on Monday.
“The whereabouts of one service member remains unknown,” it added.
The statement did not say how the soldiers, identified by U.S. officials as Navy SEAL commandos trained to operate behind enemy lines, had died.
U.S. spokeswoman Lieutenant Cindy Moore said a major anti-militant operation codenamed “Redwing” was continuing in Kunar, one of the aims of which was to find the missing commando.
She said she had no information to indicate he may have been captured — contrary to Taliban claims.
Taliban spokesman Abdul Latif Hakimi said last week that video of a captured soldier would be provided to news organizations and photographs posted on the Taliban Web site — www.alemarah.com — but neither appears to have happened.
Hakimi also said seven U.S. “spies” had been killed by the guerrillas before insurgents shot down a helicopter sent to rescue them, killing all 16 U.S. Special Forces soldiers aboard.
The helicopter casualties were the heaviest for U.S. forces in a combat incident in Afghanistan since they overthrew the Taliban in late 2001 and came amid stepped up militant violence ahead of Sept. 18 parliamentary elections.
Confirmation of the U.S. deaths brought to 32 the number of U.S. soldiers killed in militant-related violence since March, while 15 other soldiers and three civilian contractors died in a helicopter crash caused by a dust storm in April.
The deaths have made 2005 the bloodiest year for U.S. forces in Afghanistan since the Taliban’s fall, but total U.S. casualties remain a fraction of those on Washington’s other key front in Iraq.
Kunar Governor Assadullah Wafa said on Monday that 17 civilians, including women and children, had been killed in a U.S. airstrike on Friday as part of the effort to find the missing soldiers.
President Hamid Karzai was “saddened and distressed” by reports of the civilian deaths, government spokesman Jawed Ludin said on Tuesday, adding that such deaths could not be justified.
The U.S. military said on Monday it had killed an “unknown” number of militants and civilians in the strike on a militant compound and regretted the loss of innocent life.
“There is no way, obviously, that the killings of civilians can be justified,” Ludin told a news briefing, adding that the incident showed the need to rethink strategy to target militant leaders, their networks and their support structures.
“We cannot explain to our own people why they should suffer in our fight against terrorism,” he said. “Terrorists are killing them and they are also suffering from our operations — that’s a very sad situation.”
The U.S. military also said on Tuesday that six suspects were arrested in Kunar on Monday after U.S. forces discovered a weapons cache and Taliban propaganda materials northwest of its capital Asadabad. It said the cache included materials that could be used to make bombs.
(Additional reporting by Yousuf Azimy and Ahmad Sear)