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Page last updated at 22:40 GMT, Thursday, 2 July 2009 23:40 UK

Afghan rebels capture US soldier

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Operation Strike of the Sword gets under way

A US soldier has been captured by militants in eastern Afghanistan, the US military has said.

The soldier is believed to be the first seized in either Iraq or Afghanistan for at least two years.

News of the capture came as US and Afghan forces began a major operation against Taliban forces in southern Helmand province.

One of the two latest British deaths was that of the highest-ranking Army officer to be killed since 1982.

The US military says the aim of the offensive is to provide security ahead of presidential elections this August.

Helmand has seen the worst violence anywhere in Afghanistan, and military commanders say they need to break what they call the stalemate in the south of the country, says the BBC's Martin Patience in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Map

The captured soldier was not involved in the operation, codenamed Khanjar, or Strike of the Sword.

A hardline Taliban faction called Haqqani said it had the soldier, but this has not been confirmed by the main Taliban spokesman.

The army was using all its resources to find the missing serviceman, who was taken on Tuesday, spokeswoman Capt Elizabeth Mathias said.

AFP news agency said a commander of Haqqani, named only as Bahram, said the soldier was captured along with three Afghans in the Yousuf Khail district of Paktika province.

The commander said the soldier had been taken to "a safe place".

Another Haqqani commander, Mullah Sangeen, told Reuters the soldier would be held until Taliban fighters detained by the US were released.

Caroline Wyatt
Caroline Wyatt
BBC defence correspondent
The US marines say the operation will be decisive and is intended to seize almost the entire lower Helmand River valley, which remains the heartland of the Taliban insurgency in Helmand and a major area for the production of opium, which helps fund the insurgency.

US commanders hope this offensive will help turn the tide in the current stalemate against the Taliban. The aim of this major operation is to "clear, hold and build" in areas under Taliban influence ahead of Afghan presidential elections this August.

The hope is also that if US and other Nato forces are seen as clearly winning the military battle against the insurgents, middle and lower-ranking Taliban leaders and fighters are more likely to defect back to the Afghan government's side, with US and UK sources in Kabul convinced that the US troop surge is already unsettling the Taliban leadership.

The BBC's security correspondent Frank Gardner says the circumstances of this capture are strange and potentially very embarrassing for the Pentagon.

The Taliban are claiming he was drunk when they caught him, he says.

There is no indication he became separated during a firefight - rather that he wandered off out of his base with the three Afghans, our correspondent adds.

'Massive force'

The US military says about 4,000 marines as well as 650 Afghan troops - supported by Nato planes - are involved in the Helmand operation.

Marines spokesman Brig Gen Larry Nicholson said the operation was different from previous ones because of the "massive size of the force" and its speed.

A Taliban spokesman said the group would resist in various ways and that there would be no permanent US victory.

New strategy

It is the first such large-scale operation since US President Barack Obama authorised the deployment of 21,000 extra US troops to Afghanistan, as part of a new strategy for winning the conflict.

Many of those troops are being redeployed from operations in Iraq.

The operation began when units moved into the Helmand River valley in the early hours of Thursday.

Lt Col Thorneloe in army fatigues, seated next to his gun
Lt Col Thorneloe was 'an outstanding commanding officer'

Helicopters and heavy transport vehicles carried out the advance, with Nato planes providing air cover.

Our correspondent in Kabul says the idea is that they will move into towns and villages which are under Taliban control.

With the fresh US deployments, military commanders say they are confident that they will make "significant" gains this summer, even if, as our correspondent says, a decisive victory is unlikely.

Air operations

UK-led forces in Helmand launched their own operation to combat the Taliban insurgency last week, in what the UK's Ministry of Defence described as one of the largest air operations in modern times.

At the leading edge of his generation, his loss will be felt deeply not only by his family but also by his soldiers and others, who like me, had the privilege to serve with him
Sir Richard Dannatt
Chief of the General Staff

Thousands of British forces under Nato command have been fighting the Taliban in Helmand since 2006, but there has been criticism that they have been overstretched and under-resourced.

One of two British soldiers killed in an explosion in Helmand province on Wednesday was the highest-ranking Army officer to die since the Falklands war of 1982, the Ministry of Defence said.

He was named at Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe, 39, the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards. Trooper Joshua Hammond, 18, also died, and six others injured.

General Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff, said Lt Col Thornloe was "an outstanding commanding officer" and his death was a "devastating blow".

He added: "At the leading edge of his generation, his loss will be felt deeply not only by his family but also by his soldiers and others, who like me, had the privilege to serve with him."

The two men were killed when a roadside bomb exploded under their Viking armoured vehicle. Lt Col Thornloe had joined a supply convoy to see his men deployed on operation Panther's Claw, to oust the Taliban from the area around Lashkar Gah.

The BBC's defence correspondent Caroline Wyatt says questions will be asked about why such a high-ranking officer was travelling a Viking vehicle.

They are supposed to be restricted to lower-risk areas, and are due to be replaced in Afghanistan next year by the more heavily armoured 'Warthog' vehicle.

OPERATION 'KHANJAR'
Map: Helmand province

About 4,000 US and 650 Afghan troops deployed to Helmand river valley

Initial operations focused on villages of Nawa and Garmsir near the provincial capital Lashkar Gah

British operation recently recaptured the village of Babaji from the Taliban to the north of the region



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