An American soldier is missing and believed kidnapped by Taliban insurgents in eastern Afghanistan, U.S. military officials said Thursday. If confirmed, it would be the first such incident since U.S.-led coalition forces invaded the country eight years ago.
"A soldier who has been missing since June 30 is now believed to have been captured by insurgent forces," said Capt. Elizabeth Mathias, a U.S. military spokeswoman. "We are exhausting all available resources to ascertain his whereabouts and provide for his safe return." Mathias gave no information on the soldier, the location where he was captured or the circumstances.
The soldier's disappearance was reported after a routine check Tuesday, and he was initially listed as "duty status whereabouts unknown," a U.S. defense official said on condition of anonymity. It wasn't until Thursday that officials publicly said he was missing and described him as "believed captured." Details of such incidents are routinely withheld to avoid giving away any information to captors.
Afghan Police Gen. Nabi Mullakheil said the soldier went missing in the Mullakheil area of eastern Paktika province, where there is an American base, according to The Associated Press.
An NPR correspondent in Afghanistan quoted military officials as saying the soldier had nothing to do with a major offensive launched Thursday in the country's southern Helmand province.
The offensive — called Operation Khanjar, or "Strike of the Sword" — began in the small hours of Thursday and involved thousands of Marines in helicopters and armored vehicles. It is aimed at clearing insurgents from the hotly contested opium poppy-producing region ahead of the country's Aug. 20 presidential election.
Kidnappings by Islamist militants were common during the Iraq war but are relatively rare in Afghanistan.
Two U.S. defense sources told the AP that the soldier "just walked off" post with three Afghan counterparts after he finished working. They said they had no explanation for why he left the base. He was assigned to a combat outpost, one of a number of smaller bases set up by foreign forces in Afghanistan, the officials said.
Zabiullah Mujaheed, a spokesman for the Taliban, could not confirm that the soldier was with any of their forces. A myriad of insurgent groups operate in eastern Afghanistan, and the Taliban are only one of them.
From NPR staff and wire reports