Four members of the American special forces were killed in action in a southern Afghan province at the heart of a stubborn Taliban-led insurgency, the U.S. military said Sunday.
The victims died Saturday in Zabul province, about 240 miles southwest of the capital, Kabul, military spokeswoman Master Sgt. Cindy Beam said in an e-mailed statement. She gave no details of how they were killed.
“Four U.S. service members assigned to the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan were killed in action today here in southern Afghanistan,” Beam said in the statement datelined Zabul.
Beam didn’t say which service the four were attached to — Army, Navy or Air Force — and said the names of the soldiers would not be released pending notification of their families.
The toll was among the worst suffered by U.S. forces since the start of the war which toppled the Taliban in late 2001 for harboring al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, the chief suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
It brings the total number of American service personnel who have died in and around Afghanistan since the start of the U.S. war on terrorism to at least 89, including 55 killed in action.
A Taliban stronghold
Zabul, an impoverished province on the Pakistani border where the Afghan government has little control, has emerged as a stronghold of Taliban militants who have carried out a string of deadly attacks on Afghan and U.S.-led security forces since the spring.
The U.S. military says the violence, which has killed more than 350 people across the country, is aimed at disrupting the country’s first post-Taliban elections slated for September.
To ensure the vote goes ahead, American commanders have boosted the number of U.S.-led troops here to some 20,000, the their largest force yet, including an unspecified number of special forces.
Those forces often work closely with Afghan militia troops and are also believed to spearhead efforts to track down fugitive leaders, including bin Laden and Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar, both of whom may be hiding along the rugged Pakistani border.
Two Americans wounded
Further north along the border, the U.S. military said Saturday that two American soldiers were wounded in a clash with militants.
The skirmish occurred Thursday near Shkin, a border town in Paktika province 140 miles south of Kabul.
Spokesman Lt. Col. Tucker Mansager told reporters Saturday that two U.S. soldiers were wounded but gave no details of their condition or identities. It was unclear if any enemy forces were killed.
Shkin lies just a few miles from the border with Pakistan and its semiautonomous Waziristan tribal region, where Pakistani officials say hundreds of foreign militants are holed up.
Under pressure from the United States, the Pakistani government is threatening military action against the foreigners — believed to include Arabs and Chechens as well as Afghans — if they don’t renounce violence and register with authorities.
Meanwhile, the military played down the scale of a battle Tuesday in southern Afghanistan. U.S. warplanes had come to the assistance of American troops engaged in a firefight there.
Afghan officials initially said as many as 20 suspected Taliban were killed in fighting in the Arghistan district of Kandahar province. But Mansager said the U.S. military knew of only two dead militants, and there was no information to suggest any militant leaders were killed.