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GI apparently seized in Afghanistan

The capture of the soldier would be a first for militants in the war. The incident in the east of the country comes just as an anti-Taliban offensive involving U.S. Marines has begun in the south.

July 03, 2009|M. Karim Faiez and Laura King | Faiez is a special correspondent.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN, AND ISTANBUL, TURKEY — The apparent capture of an American soldier by insurgents in eastern Afghanistan, believed to be the first such case in nearly eight years of warfare, presents U.S. military officials with potentially agonizing choices just as a major military offensive is underway in one of the most guerrilla-filled areas of the south.

The soldier could provide insurgents with both a propaganda bonanza and a bargaining chip. There was no immediate public claim of responsibility from any group, but a number of militant commanders, not all of them affiliated with the Taliban, operate in eastern Afghanistan.

The U.S. military said in a terse statement that the soldier had disappeared Tuesday, but it disclosed virtually nothing of the circumstances other than to say he was believed to have been captured.

However, an American military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the incident, said that for unknown reasons, the soldier apparently left his base near the Pakistani border. Like most U.S. installations in the country's rugged eastern sector, the base is surrounded by hostile territory where a number of insurgent groups operate. The soldier was reported to have been in the company of several Afghans.

"We are using all of our available resources to establish his whereabouts and provide for his safe return," said Army Capt. Elizabeth Mathias, a spokeswoman for American forces.

In southern Afghanistan, one Marine was killed in action during the first day of the military assault in a large swath of Helmand province, the Marine Expeditionary Brigade- Afghanistan said in a statement, adding that "several" others were injured or wounded. The slain Marine was not immediately identified.

Nearly 4,000 Marines and more than 600 Afghan troops pushed before dawn Thursday into the lower Helmand River valley, a string of villages and farms where insurgents have long ranged freely.

The area is a center of Afghanistan's flourishing opium trade as well as the insurgency, which uses its share of drug profits to bankroll attacks on Western troops.

The helicopter- and convoy-borne assault, among the largest in the south since the start of the conflict in October 2001, met with little initial resistance from Taliban fighters, who largely slipped away.

Temperatures exceeding 100 degrees slowed down the movement of some of the troops, who dismounted from convoys to press ahead on foot in body armor, laden with heavy packs.

"There has been sporadic fighting, but so far no heavy engagement," said Capt. Bill Pelletier, a spokesman for the Marine Expeditionary Brigade- Afghanistan, which is based at Camp Lejeune, N.C. "We've had individuals or several people fire on our forces, but they broke contact pretty quickly once they gained the Marines' attention."

The attacking force also appeared mindful of new instructions from Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of NATO and U.S. troops in Afghanistan, to make it a priority to avoid civilian casualties. Troops have been told that even if they believe insurgents have taken shelter in a particular location, they should refrain from bombardment if there is a possibility that civilians might be present, unless they themselves are in immediate danger.

Pelletier said the Marines so far had "not used indirect fire at all in our operations -- no artillery or bombs from aircraft."

The operation is likely to be a sustained one, involving the taking and holding of territory where thinly deployed British troops have mainly engaged in hit-and-run encounters with the insurgents.

The apparent capture of an American soldier in the eastern part of the country adds a complicating factor to this new phase of the Afghan conflict, which was driven by a fresh counterinsurgency strategy crafted by the Obama administration.

The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will reach 68,000 by year's end, reflecting a shift in priority away from the conflict in Iraq.

The Reuters news agency quoted a senior Taliban commander, Maulvi Sangeen Zadran, as saying the soldier was seized after leaving a base in Paktika province. Sangeen is allied with the Haqqani network, one of the most virulent of the Pakistani-based insurgent groups active in the border zone.

News accounts quoted Sangeen as saying that video of the captive, together with demands for the release of insurgent prisoners, would be forthcoming.

Abductions of aid workers, journalists and Afghan nationals are not unusual, but a military official said the U.S. soldier's apparent capture was believed to be the first of its kind in the course of the Afghan conflict.

The soldier's disappearance could raise embarrassing questions about an unauthorized departure from what are supposed to be heavily fortified bases where comings and goings are closely monitored.

The case was also a grim evocation of some of the most emotionally wrenching events for the U.S. military in Iraq.

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