The discovery of the body of a second U.S. sailor who vanished in Afghanistan last week only deepened the mystery of the men's disappearance nearly 60 miles from their base in a dangerous area controlled by the Taliban.
An investigation is under way, but with both sailors dead, U.S. authorities remained at a loss Thursday to explain what two junior enlisted men in noncombat jobs were doing driving alone in Logar province, where much of the countryside is not under government control.
"This is like a puzzle," said Abdul Wali, deputy head of the governing council in Logar.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Justin McNeley — father of two boys aged 5 and 9 — from Kingman, Arizona, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Jarod Newlove, 25, from the Seattle area, disappeared in the province July 23. McNeley's body was recovered there Sunday and Newlove's body was pulled from a river Wednesday evening, Afghan officials said.
A U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the case, confirmed Thursday that Newlove's relatives had been notified of his death.
At the Newlove's house in west Seattle, where children's chalk drawings adorned the sidewalk, a big sign on the door said: "The family has no comment. Please respect our privacy."
Officials at the NATO-led coalition headquarters in Kabul have not offered an explanation as to why the two service members were driving a heavily armored vehicle so far from their base at Camp Julien, a training facility on the western edge of the city.
A NATO official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the case was being investigated, said it was unclear what the two were doing, what prompted them to leave their compound or whether they were on official business.
Senior military officials in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case, said the sailors were never assigned anywhere near where their bodies were found.
The NATO official in Kabul shot down speculation that the two had been abducted in Kabul and driven to Logar — the same province where New York Times reporter David Rohde was kidnapped last year while trying to make contact with a Taliban commander. Rohde and an Afghan colleague escaped in June 2009 after seven months in captivity, most spent in Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan.
Samer Gul, chief of Logar's Charkh district, said the two sailors, in a four-wheel drive armored SUV, were seen Friday by a guard working for the district chief's office. The guard tried to flag down the vehicle, carrying a driver and a passenger, but it kept going, Gul said.
"They stopped in the main bazaar of Charkh district. The Taliban saw them in the bazaar," Gul 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 stop the vehicle, but when it didn't, insurgents opened fire and the occupants in the vehicle shot back, he said. The NATO official confirmed that the vehicle had been shot up.
Gul said there is a well-paved road that leads into the Taliban area and suggested the Americans may have mistaken that for the main highway — which is much older and more dilapidated.
Wali, the deputy head of the governing council in Logar, insisted the Taliban did not plan the incident. Initially, the insurgents didn't know if they should claim responsibility or not, he said.
"The Taliban were just joking around with each other and they suddenly saw a big armored vehicle coming toward them," he said. "They thought it might be a trick — that if it got too close, there might be an airstrike against them — so they opened fire."
Din Mohammed Darwesh, spokesman for the provincial governor of Logar, said the governor's office was upset because the two Americans left their base without notifying Afghan security forces in Logar, which is the normal protocol. He called their presence in Logar an "abnormal situation."
The international force quickly launched a massive search for the sailors, setting up checkpoints and distributing hundreds of fliers, with reprinted photos of the two missing sailors. The fliers offered a $20,000 reward for information about their whereabouts.
The Taliban did not claim responsibility for the missing sailors for more than 48 hours after the ambush. A message posted on their website late Sunday claimed one American service member had been kidnapped in Logar and another was killed in a shootout.
On Thursday, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told The Associated Press that the Taliban, on Tuesday, left the "body of a dead American soldier for the U.S. forces" to recover.
U.S. officials did not provide details about how either sailor might have died. Darwesh, the provincial spokesman, said Newlove was shot once in the head and twice in the torso.
Mohammad Rahim Amin, local government chief in Baraki Barak, said villagers in the district called to report the body of a foreigner, clad in a uniform, in the river. He said coalition forces recovered it about 5:30 p.m. Wednesday. He speculated the body could have floated downstream because the river was swollen by rain Tuesday night.
Amin said in recent days, security tightened around the Taliban, who were under pressure from Afghan forces, intelligence officials and coalition troops converging on the area in a massive search for the missing service member.
"It makes sense that the Taliban had nowhere to go, so they killed him," Amin said, referring to Newlove.
Newlove joined the Navy in March 2004, completed his duty and joined the reserve in December 2008. He was called back to duty and was in Afghanistan by December 2009. He was trained as a culinary specialist but it was unclear whether he was working at that job in Kabul.
McNeley joined the Navy in 2001 and deployed to Afghanistan last year. He was classified as a hull technician. The job entails skilled metal work to maintain ships.