25 wounded in search for US troops missing in Afghanistan

A search for two US soldiers missing in northwest Afghanistan continued after 25 soldiers were wounded in what one Western official said may have been a friendly-fire incident during the hunt.

Local police said a party looking for the two missing soldiers clashed with Taliban and that alliance aircraft were called in to provide support.

While the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) withheld official comment on how the 25 were wounded, police said the casualties occurred when the air strike mistakenly targeted international troops.

A Western military officer who spoke on condition of anonymity told AFP it appeared to be a "blue-on-blue incident," or friendly fire, with "a huge number of casualties."

NATO began its search operation in the barren, rugged area together with Afghan forces after the two paratroopers, from the 82nd Airborne Division, went missing on Wednesday during a routine supply mission.

Afghan police said the two had drowned.

As far as the injured were concerned, an ISAF statement said only that initial reports "indicate more than 25 ISAF and Afghan National Security Force members were wounded" during a joint operation in western Afghanistan.

"The wounded service members were initially treated on the scene and subsequently flown to an ISAF medical facility for further treatment."

It added that the force was searching for "two missing US Army soldiers".

"We are committed to taking every measure possible to rescue or recover our missing service members. We continue to do everything we can to find them," the statement quoted US Navy Captain Jane Campbell as saying.

The deputy police chief of the northwestern province of Badghis, Abdul Jabar Saleh, said the missing men had drowned while trying to recover airdropped packages and that their bodies had not yet been recovered.

He said a number of NATO and Afghan personnel had died as they came up against Taliban militants during the search on Friday and that alliance aircraft carried out air strikes.

"In the afternoon... during the search operation launched to find the two drowned American soldiers, a clash took place with Taliban. Then aircraft mistakenly bombed the Afghan and NATO defence lines," he said.

Information on casualties was unclear, he said, putting the number of American soldiers "dead or wounded" at seven.

Two Afghan soldiers had been killed and 12 wounded, he said, adding that three Afghan police had also been killed and one other wounded.

"We don't have an exact breakdown because helicopters came and evacuated the casualties out of the area."

A Taliban spokesman said the toll was far higher than the Afghan police or NATO were reporting.

"There was... a firefight between Taliban and Afghan and foreign forces in Murghab district of Badghis province. The fighting lasted for hours and was very intense, at a close distance," said the spokesman, Qari Yusuf Ahmadi.

"By the end of the day, foreign forces bombed the area where the clash was going on, and due to their own bombing, 32 foreign and 43 Afghan soldiers were killed."

Meanwhile, UN chief Ban Ki-moon said about 200 UN expatriate staff would be temporarily relocated outside Afghanistan in the wake of a deadly rebel attack on a guesthouse on October 28 which killed five UN workers.

"Approximately 200 will relocate to other duty stations in the region," the UN Secretary General told reporters in New York after briefing the Security Council on his recent visit to Kabul.

"It is not 600 as has been reported by some media," he added. "We are not evacuating. We will not, cannot and must not be deterred. Our work will continue."

UN officials said another 400 expatriates were being relocated to safer sites within Afghanistan.

There are more than 100,000 troops under NATO and US command deployed to Afghanistan to fight a Taliban insurgency that is now at its deadliest in the eight years since US-led troops toppled the Islamist regime in Kabul.

US President Barack Obama is currently considering a request from his military commanders to boost troop numbers by up to 40,000, a decision that is not likely to be made public for a number of weeks yet.

source AFP

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