- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 28, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A packed bus hit a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday, killing 25 people aboard, and NATO announced that another U.S. service member has died in a rapidly rising monthly death toll.

The passenger bus was traveling in Nimroz province on a main highway toward the capital, Kabul, when it struck the explosive about 7 a.m., said Nazir Ahmad, a provincial government spokesman. Another 20 people were wounded, he said.

The explosion occurred near Delaram, a volatile area close to the borders of Helmand and Farah provinces.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the attack. “The criminals who did this are the enemies of Muslims,” he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, NATO forces said a U.S. service member was killed in an insurgent attack in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday, without giving further details.

A NATO drone also went down in a Taliban-held area of northern Afghanistan because of mechanical problems, the alliance said in a statement. The craft, called a Luna UAV, contained no weapons or intelligence that could be exploited by enemy forces, NATO said.

July is already one of the deadliest months for U.S. troops in the nearly nine-year Afghan war, with 59 service members killed so far. That’s just shy of the 60 who died in June — the deadliest month for U.S. forces. Altogether, 80 NATO troops have died in July. In June, 103 NATO forces were killed.

The rising death toll comes as U.S. forces continue the search for a missing Navy sailor believed captured last week by Taliban forces when he and a colleague drove into an insurgent-held area of eastern Afghanistan. One of the sailors was killed in a firefight with militants, and the Taliban has said they seized the other.

NATO officials were unable to say what the two service members were doing in such a dangerous part of eastern Afghanistan.

The Navy identified the missing sailor as Petty Officer 3rd Class Jarod Newlove, a 25-year-old from the Seattle area. The Pentagon lists Petty Officer Newlove as “whereabouts unknown” and did not confirm he was captured.

The service member killed in the firefight was Petty Officer 2nd Class Justin McNeley, a 30-year-old father of two from Wheatridge, Colo. NATO recovered his body Sunday.

The sailors were instructors at a counterinsurgency school for Afghan security forces, according to senior military officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case. The school was headquartered in Kabul and had classrooms outside the capital, but the two sailors never were assigned anywhere near where the body of Petty Officer McNeley was recovered, the officials said.

U.S. forces have pushed into southern Taliban strongholds in recent months and weeks in an attempt to squeeze insurgents out of the area where they have long functioned as a de facto government. Along with the surge, attacks on military forces and Afghan supporters of the government have increased. Many civilians also have been killed or wounded in incidents such as Wednesday’s bus bomb or caught up in the crossfire.

On Monday, the Afghan government said 52 civilians, including women and children, died when a NATO rocket struck a village in southern Afghanistan last week — a report the international coalition has disputed.

Mr. Karzai’s office said an investigation by Afghan intelligence officers determined a NATO rocket slammed into Rigi village in Helmand province, one of the most violent areas of the country.

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