KABUL, Afghanistan - U.S. and NATO officials confirmed that two American Navy personnel went missing Friday in the eastern province of Logar, after an armored sports utility vehicle was seen driving into a Taliban-held area.
The two left their compound in the Afghan capital, Kabul, in a vehicle Friday afternoon, but never returned, NATO said in a statement. Vehicles and helicopters were dispatched to search for the two, who may have been killed or captured by the Taliban after getting lost in Charkh district of southern Logar province, said district chief Samer Gul.
In a telephone interview Sunday with the Associated Press, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the pair drove into an area under insurgent control, prompting a brief gunfight in which one of the Americans was killed and the other was captured. He said both were taken to a "safe area" and "are in the hands of the Taliban." The Taliban offered to exchange the body of the U.S. Navy sailor they said was killed in exchange for insurgent prisoners.
NATO officials have offered no clear explanation why the sailors were in Logar. The visiting chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, told reporters Sunday that he didn't have all the details, but "from what I know right now, this is an unusual circumstance." He would not elaborate.
Elsewhere Saturday, five U.S. troops died in separate bombings in the south, setting July on course to become the deadliest month of the nearly 9-year war for Americans.
Rising casualties are eroding support for the war even as President Barack Obama has sent thousands of reinforcements to try to turn back the Taliban, who would have a leg up in the propaganda war with the capture of two U.S. troops.
Earlier Sunday, Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, told the AP that he had no information about U.S. sailors in Taliban hands. He said he would look into the reports. He claimed responsibility in a subsequent conversation.
That suggested that the Friday attack was a spur-of-the-moment move and that the militants are trying to figure out what to do about it.
A NATO official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the event, confirmed the two were Navy personnel, but would not identify their unit to avoid jeopardizing search operations.
Samer Gul, the chief of Logar's Charkh district, said a four-wheel drive armored sports utility vehicle was seen Friday night 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.
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
The only U.S. service member known to be in Taliban captivity is Spc. Bowe Bergdahl of Hailey, Idaho, who disappeared June 30, 2009, in Paktika province. That area is heavily infiltrated by the Haqqani network, which has deep links to al-Qaida. He has since appeared on videos posted on Taliban websites confirming his captivity.
New York Times reporter David Rohde was also kidnapped in Logar province while trying to make contact with a Taliban commander. He and an Afghan colleague escaped in June 2009 after seven months in captivity, most of it spent in Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan.
Also, Saturday night in Logar, Afghan and coalition security forces detained two suspected insurgents in a clearing operation, NATO said Sunday. It was unclear whether the operation was directly tied to the search for the two missing sailors.
In the northeast, meanwhile, insurgents recaptured a remote district of Nuristan province that has bounced between government and Taliban control in recent months.
Afghan police retreated from Barg-e-Matal before dawn Sunday after days of heavy fighting in which at least five officers were killed, said Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary.
"The pressure of the attack was heavy on them," Bashary said. He said they pulled back in order to prevent further casualties and were planning a counteroffensive from an area close to the district.
On Saturday in the same district in Logar, the manager of an Afghan construction company and his driver were kidnapped, according to Din Mohammad Darwesh, spokesman for the governor of Logar province. The two Afghans captured worked with Afghan Korean Construction Co., he said.
The five American troops died in roadside bombings in the south -- four in a single blast. A fifth service member was killed in a separate attack in the south where international forces are stepping up the fight against the insurgents.
The latest deaths brought to 75 the number of international troops killed in Afghanistan this month, including 56 Americans. Many of the deaths have occurred in the south where Afghan and NATO forces are ramping up operations against the Taliban in their southern strongholds, hoping to enable the Afghan government to expand its control in the volatile region.
On Tuesday, an international conference in Kabul endorsed President Hamid Karzai's plan for Afghan security forces to assume responsibility for protecting the country by the end of 2014. Obama has pledged to begin removing U.S. troops starting in July 2011, although he has linked the drawdown to security conditions on the ground.