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US soldiers kidnapped by Taliban in Afghanistan: Are they both still alive?

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(Read caption) A leaflet distributed by the U.S. military to civilians in Logar province, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, shows a missing U.S. Navy sailor with an offer of a 20.000 US dollars for information on his whereabouts.

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• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

An Afghan official says Taliban fighters have offered to exchange the body of one of two US troops captured on Friday for imprisoned insurgents.

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The two US Navy members disappeared on Friday in a dangerous area of Logar province. Conflicting reports have emerged over who captured the two soldiers and whether one was killed in an ambush.

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The capture comes after the deadliest month for coalition forces in Afghanistan since the invasion in 2001: 102 soldiers were killed in June, and 75 have died in July. Two separate incidents left five more US soldiers dead Saturday.

The Associated Press reports that Abdul Wali, head of the provincial governing council in Logar, said that Taliban militants had captured one soldier and killed the other in an ambush. They offered to trade the body of one US soldier for Taliban fighters in prison. The militants apparently made the offer to local Afghan officials. Mr. Wali said the officials responded by saying, "Let's talk about the one that is still alive,” and the insurgents had to consult with superiors before making a deal, the AP reports.

The BBC reports that a local official said both men were alive, and that local elders were negotiating for their release. The US has broadcast radio messages offering $20,000 for information leading to their safe return.

The AP also reports that the Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said he did not know if Taliban had captured US soldiers, and was holding off on claiming responsibility until he had obtained more information.

The disconnect highlights the nature of the insurgency, which is often a loose connection of different militant networks, as this Monitor briefing on the Taliban explained.

Bloomberg quotes a senior Taliban commander who said in a telephone interview that the two were captured by the Taliban. The Los Angeles Times joins the AP in reporting that Taliban fighters have claimed to have killed one soldier and are holding the other.

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Word of the insurgents' encounter with the Americans did not come directly from the Taliban's usual spokesmen, but was relayed by Afghan authorities citing local intermediaries. The two Americans were reported to have disappeared in Charkh district, a hotbed of insurgent activity that is considered dangerous even for Afghan officials, let alone outsiders.

It would be highly unusual for US service members to travel alone and virtually unprotected in the area, and Afghan officials depicted their presence as an apparently unexpected bonanza for the local Taliban.

The confusion is likely partly due to the fact that the capture appears to have happened on the spur of the moment. A provincial government spokesman said the two soldiers left their compound in an armored Toyota Land Cruiser and were seen in a market headed toward a dangerous area, reports the Wall Street Journal. The government spokesman said the two appeared to be lost, and ignored an attempt by local policemen to flag them down. Taliban members apparently saw them in the market and warned fellow militants down the road to prepare an ambush.

NATO has launched a search for the men, but has not said what their mission was. The Los Angeles Times reports that NATO forces captured two suspected insurgents in an overnight operation, but did not say whether they had gained information on the missing soldiers. The Times also explains why Navy personnel would be serving in landlocked Afghanistan, reporting that their roles include “medical corpsmen attached to units from various branches of service, bomb-disposal experts and also elite SEALS who are involved in special operations.”

The only other coalition soldier known to be held by militants is American Spc. Bowe Bergdahl. Spc. Bergdahl was captured in June 2009, outside a base in southern Paktika province, which shares a border with Pakistan’s North Waziristan province. The Taliban have released videos showing Bergdahl to be in captivity, as the Monitor reported.