- Associated Press - Saturday, July 24, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan | The Taliban have offered to exchange the body of a U.S. Navy sailor they said was killed in an ambush two days ago for insurgent prisoners, an Afghan official said Sunday.

U.S. and NATO officials confirmed that two U.S. 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.

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 American was killed and the other was captured. He said both were taken to a “safe area” and “are in the hands of the Taliban.”

Mr. Mujahid did not mention any offer to exchange the pair for Taliban prisoners. A local Afghan official said the Taliban sent a message through intermediaries offering to hand over the body in exchange for jailed insurgents.

Abdul Wali, the deputy head of the provincial governing council, said local authorities responded by saying, “Let’s talk about the one that is still alive.” The insurgents said they would have to talk to superiors before making any deal.

Hundreds of posters of the two missing sailors have been hung at checkpoints throughout Logar province where NATO troops are stopping vehicles, searching people, peering inside windows and searching trunks.

The posters, with photographs of the missing sailors, state: “This American troop is missing. He was last seen in a white Land Cruiser vehicle. If you have any information about this solider, kindly contact the Logar Joint Coordination Center,” run by coalition and Afghan forces. A phone number is listed along with information about a $20,000 reward being offered for information leading to their location.

“Our latest, accurate information reports are that they are still in the area,” said Din Mohammed Darwesh, spokesman for the provincial governor of Logar.

He said the governor’s office was upset because the two Americans left their base without notifying Afghan security forces in Logar.

“This was an abnormal situation,” Mr. Darwesh said.

NATO officials have offered no clear explanation why the sailors were in Logar. The two left their compound in the Afghan capital, Kabul, Friday afternoon but never returned, NATO said in a statement.

The visiting chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy 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.”

Adm. Mullen said he could not comment on the Taliban claim that one American was killed and the other was captured. He says the U.S. is doing all it can to “return to American hands anybody who has been captured or killed.”

Earlier Sunday, Mr. 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.

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