Taliban offers to exchange body of US sailor as hunt continues

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The Independent Online

The Taliban has offered to exchange the body of a US Navy sailor they said was killed in an ambush two days ago in exchange for insurgent prisoners, an Afghan official said yesterday.

US and Nato officials confirmed that two American Navy personnel went missing Friday in the eastern province of Logar, after an armoured sports utility vehicle was seen driving into a Taliban-held area. In a telephone interview Sunday with the Associated Press, a Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said the pair drove into an area under insurgent control, prompting a brief gunfight in which one American was killed and the other was captured. He said both were taken to a "safe area" and "are in the hands of the Taliban".

Mr Mujahid did not mention any offer to exchange the pair for Taliban prisoners. A local Afghan official said the Taliban sent a message through intermediaries offering to hand over the body in exchange for jailed insurgents.

Abdul Wali, the deputy head of the provincial governing council, said local authorities responded by saying, "Let's talk about the one that is still alive". The insurgents said they would have to talk to superiors before making any deal.

Hundreds of posters of the two missing sailors have been hung at checkpoints throughout Logar province where Nato troops are stopping vehicles and searching people.

The posters, with photographs of the missing sailors, state: "This American troop is missing. He was last seen in a white Land Cruiser vehicle. If you have any information about this soldier, kindly contact the Logar Joint Coordination Centre". A $20,000 (£13,000) reward is offered for information leading to their location. The photographs show one clean-shaven sailor wearing a cap and another with short-cropped hair, wearing a blue shirt and a white undershirt.

"Our latest, accurate information reports are that they are still in the area," said Din Mohammed Darwesh, a spokesman for the provincial governor of Logar.

He said the governor's office was upset because the two Americans left their base without notifying Afghan security forces in Logar. "This was an abnormal situation," Mr Darwesh said. Nato officials have offered no clear explanation why the sailors were in Logar. The two left their compound in the Afghan capital, on Kabul, Friday afternoon but did not return, Nato said in a statement.

The visiting chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, told reporters on Sunday that he did not have all the details, but "from what I know right now, this is an unusual circumstance".

Admiral Mullen said he could not comment on the Taliban's claim that one American was killed and the other was captured. He says the US is doing all it can to return to American hands anybody who has been captured or killed.

"There's a tremendous amount of effort going on to find them, to search, and beyond that I can't discuss any additional details at this time. It serves to remind of the challenges that we have and also the service and sacrifice that so many make, but that's really all I can talk about."

Earlier on Sunday, Mr Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, told AP that he had no information about US sailors in Taliban hands, but claimed responsibility in a subsequent conversation. That suggested that the Friday attack was a spur-of-the-moment move and that the militants are trying to work out what to do about it. A Nato official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the two were Navy personnel, but would not identify their unit to avoid jeopardising search operations.

The only US service member known to be in Taliban captivity is Specialist Bowe Bergdahl of Hailey, Idaho, who disappeared 30 June 2009, in Paktika province. That area is heavily infiltrated by the Haqqani network, which has deep links to al-Qa'ida. He has since appeared on videos posted on Taliban websites confirming his captivity.