Taliban take two US soldiers hostage in Afghanistan

Five Americans are killed in separate bombings
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The Independent Online

A search was under way last night for two American soldiers captured by the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan. In a statement, Nato confirmed that the pair vanished after leaving their compound in Kabul on Friday afternoon. Helicopters and armoured vehicles were deployed in an attempt to find them, and a reward of $20,000 (£13,000) was offered for their return.

Afghan official Samer Gul, district chief of Charkh district in Logar province, said that a four-wheel drive armoured vehicle was seen on Friday night by a guard working for the district chief's office. "The Taliban saw them in the bazaar," he said. "They didn't touch them in the bazaar, but notified other Taliban that a four-wheel vehicle was coming their way." The second group of Taliban tried to halt the vehicle, but when the driver refused to stop, insurgents opened fire and the two occupants in the vehicle shot back, he said. According to the local official, one may have been killed and the other taken hostage by the Taliban.

The only other US serviceman known to have been taken by insurgents is Private Bowe Bergdahl, captured by the Taliban in June last year.

News of the missing soldiers came as five Americans died in bombings in southern Afghanistan yesterday. Four died in a single blast; the fifth was killed in a separate attack. The latest deaths bring to 75 the number of coalition soldiers killed in Afghanistan this month, as fighting continues to escalate against the Taliban in their southern strongholds.

Nato is embroiled in controversy after claims of child casualties during a battle with Taliban fighters in Sangin, southern Afghanistan, on Friday. In Kandahar, a man named Abdul Ghafaar claimed that he had taken seven children caught in the crossfire to hospital. Another man, Marjan Agha, claimed to have brought injured people from Sangin and said that the fighting began after civilians were caught between coalition and insurgent fighters. He said villagers began walking with a white flag toward Nato forces but shots rang out and two people were killed on the spot. Nato said in a statement it had "no operational reporting that correlates to this alleged incident."

Tensions are building meanwhile over national elections planned for September, amid fears that they could provoke a further surge in Taliban attacks. In the eastern province of Khost, a parliamentary candidate died on Friday of wounds suffered when a bomb exploded earlier in the day in a mosque where he had been making a speech.

Despite record levels of violence and serious concerns over the calibre of the Afghan police and army, an international conference in Kabul last week endorsed President Hamid Karzai's plan for Afghan security forces to assume responsibility for protecting the country by the end of 2014 – a move that could see the numbers of British and American troops in combat begin to reduce next year. And in a further sign of the shifting strategy in Afghanistan, the planned offensive against the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar devised by General Stanley McChrystal has been put on hold by his successor General David Petraeus.

Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, confirmed on Friday that the US-led strategy in southern Afghanistan was undergoing sweeping changes.