Local Taliban commanders threatened Thursday to kill a captured American soldier unless the U.S. military stops operations in two districts of southeastern Afghanistan, but senior military officials dismissed the report.
Also Thursday, Canadian authorities announced that a Canadian soldier was killed southwest of Kandahar, bringing to 47 the number of international troops killed in Afghanistan this month. That makes July the deadliest month of the war for foreign troops — with nearly half the month to go.
The Taliban claimed last week to be holding the American soldier, whom the U.S. military earlier described as possibly being in enemy hands.
Abdullah Jalali, a spokesman for Taliban commander Mawlavi Sangin, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Thursday that the soldier was healthy.
He said the soldier would be killed unless the U.S. stops airstrikes in Ghazni province’s Giro district and Paktika province’s Khoshamand district. Jalali did not explain why the Taliban chose those areas, noting only that Giro has been heavily bombed.
Spokeswoman Capt. Elizabeth Mathias declined to comment on the demands but did say recent operations in Giro district this month did not involve bombings.
Neither district is in Helmand province, where Marines are conducting the largest U.S. military operation in Afghanistan since the Taliban were toppled from power in 2001.
Military drops fliers on soldier
Senior U.S. military officials dismissed reports of the threat to kill the soldier. The officials also told NBC News that no air combat operations were under way in either district. They also said it's not clear exactly which Taliban network may have the soldier in custody, although it's believed he is still somewhere inside that eastern region of Afghanistan.
The U.S. military is distributing fliers calling for the soldier's release. The fliers are being airdropped or distributed by hand along the border with Pakistan.
Each flier has images on front and back. One reads: "One of our American guests is missing. Return the guest to his home. Call us at 070 769 4351."
One with an image of a soldier kicking in the door reads: "If you do not release the U.S. soldier, you will be hunted."
Jalali said the final decision about the soldier’s fate will be made by Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
The U.S. military has said the soldier was noticed missing during a routine check of the unit on June 30 and was “believed captured.”
The Taliban claimed on its Web site on July 6 that it was holding the soldier.
“Five days ago, a drunken American soldier who had come out of his garrison named Malakh was captured by mujahedeen. ... He is still with mujahedeen,” said the report. The short Web message did not elaborate on his whereabouts, nor did it provide any proof such as a photo.
The U.S. military has said it intercepted communications in which insurgents talked about holding an American.
'Just walked off'
The soldier’s body armor and weapon were found on the base, and U.S. defense sources say he “just walked off” the post with three Afghans after work. They say they have no explanation for why he left the base.
The military has not identified the soldier but say his family has been notified that he is missing. He is serving in an Army infantry unit assigned to a combat outpost, one of a number of smaller bases set up by foreign forces in Afghanistan.
The Canadian soldier was killed at dawn Thursday in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar, the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban, according to a statement issued by Canadian defense authorities in Canada. The previous deadliest months for the international force were June and August of 2008, when 46 foreign troops died.
U.S. commanders had been expecting higher casualties since President Barack Obama ordered 21,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan this year to curb a resurgent Taliban that threatens not only the U.S.-backed Kabul government but also Afghanistan’s nuclear-armed neighbor, Pakistan.
About 57,000 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan, and the number is expected to rise to at least 68,000 by the end of 2009.
Also Thursday, the governor of Kandahar province announced that four civilians were killed and 13 wounded in an airstrike on a village in Shawalikot district. A previous statement had said six civilians were killed.
Wounded villagers at a hospital in the provincial capital told AP that attack helicopters started bombarding their homes at about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday. One man said his 3-year-old granddaughter was killed.
Mathias, the U.S. military spokeswoman, said she did not have details because fighting was continuing in the area. She said casualties were reported but could not confirm anything.
U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who took over last month as the commander of U.S. and NATO forces, has said he wants his troops’ first priority to be protecting Afghan civilians, not using massive firepower.
Elsewhere, officials said three police were killed by a suicide car bomber in Nimroz province, and two Afghan army soldiers died in two other attacks in the south. NATO forces said they killed two insurgents in an attack in the east.
The Interior Ministry said an attack on an international military supply convoy sparked a gunbattle that killed at least eight insurgents, two police officers and a private security guard.
More on: Afghanistan