Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — The Taliban movement and local Afghan officials said Sunday that one U.S. serviceman was killed and another captured in a firefight after they went missing Friday — a claim that, if true, would mark yet another setback for Western forces in Afghanistan.
The missing Americans, identified by Western officials as U.S. Navy personnel, were last seen in a dangerous part of Lowgar province, south of Kabul, the Afghan capital. A massive ground and air search by NATO and Afghan forces was underway, with the men's photos plastered at military checkpoints and a reward offered for information about them.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said an insurgent patrol that spotted the pair tried to detain them and that one was killed when they resisted. He did not provide details.
"They moved toward an insecure area without informing the authorities, and there they encountered the enemy," said Lowgar's police chief, Gen. Mohammad Mustafa Mosseini. He said one of the insurgents used rocket-propelled grenades to ambush the Americans' vehicle Friday, killing one and capturing the other.
NATO has not confirmed the killing and capture. U.S. Adm. Michael G. Mullen, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Kabul that a "tremendous amount of effort" was being expended to find the two servicemen.
Afghan officials in Lowgar said the pair, driving an armored sport utility vehicle, may have taken a wrong turn and accidentally ended up in a Taliban-held area. NATO has not said why the pair traveled to Lowgar after leaving their base in Kabul, or whether the trip was authorized by their superiors.
Illustrating the sometimes splintered nature of the insurgency, there appeared to be initial confusion within the Taliban about which of its factions was involved in the confrontation. Although there is an overall Taliban command structure, local cells of insurgents — sometimes intermingled with criminal gangs — operate semiautonomously in some parts of the country.
First word of the insurgents' encounter with the Americans did not come directly from the Taliban's usual spokesmen, but was relayed by Afghan authorities, who cited local intermediaries.
By Sunday afternoon, though, Taliban spokesman Mujahid, reached by telephone, confirmed that one of the servicemen was being held "in a secure location" and the other was dead.
The alleged capture is a demoralizing blow to Western forces, who are currently suffering their highest casualty rates in nine years of warfare with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The alliance's command was roiled by the abrupt sacking of Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, and a planned NATO offensive in the city of Kandahar, meant to turn the tide of the conflict and deal insurgents a decisive setback, has yet to fully materialize.
Even so, Mullen and other senior officials say no change in Western strategy is needed.
The two Americans disappeared in Charkh district, a hotbed of insurgent activity that is considered dangerous even for Afghan officials, let alone outsiders. It would be highly unusual for U.S. service members to travel alone and virtually unprotected in the area, and Afghan officials depicted their presence as an apparently unexpected bonanza for the local Taliban.
The head of the provincial council in Lowgar, Abdul Hakim Sulaimankhil, said the faction that captured the men had offered to exchange the body of the slain man for an unspecified number of insurgent prisoners. But Taliban spokesman Mujahid said the group's leadership would weigh the question of whether it was willing to negotiate for the other captive's safe return.
Western military officials on Sunday reported "offensive clearing operations" in Charkh overnight by Afghan and coalition troops that resulted in the capture of two suspected insurgents. The military did not say whether the raid yielded any information about the missing Navy men.
Although Afghanistan is landlocked, U.S. Navy personnel serve a variety of roles in combat here. They include medical corpsmen attached to units from various branches of service, bomb-disposal experts and elite SEALs who are involved in special operations.
Until now, the Taliban's only known American military prisoner has been Bowe Bergdahl, an Idaho native who was an Army private at the time of his capture 13 months ago in eastern Afghanistan. Last month he was promoted in absentia to Army specialist.
Bergdahl, whom American officials believe may have been taken across the frontier to Pakistan, has been seen in Taliban-made videos denouncing the Western troop presence.
The circumstances of his capture were also murky. In the immediate aftermath of his disappearance, U.S. military officials said he had apparently walked away from his base, but they later backtracked on that assertion. In videos, Bergdahl has said he was seized after lagging behind on patrol.
The prisoner drama unfolded amid fierce new fighting in the eastern province of Nuristan, where the district of Barg Matal has changed hands several times.
The Taliban claimed Sunday to have overrun the district, capturing a number of Afghan soldiers and killing 15 police officers. Afghanistan's Interior Ministry acknowledged that government forces had withdrawn from the district under fire, but expressed hopes the area could be secured soon.