- The Washington Times - Friday, July 17, 2009

KABUL | Local Taliban commanders threatened Thursday to kill a captured American soldier unless the U.S. military stops operations in two districts of southeastern Afghanistan.

Also Thursday, Canadian authorities announced that a Canadian soldier was killed southwest of Kandahar, bringing to 47 the number of international troops killed in Afghanistan this month. That makes July the deadliest month of the war for foreign troops - with nearly half the month to go.

Taliban militants claimed last week to be holding the American soldier, whom the U.S. military earlier described as possibly being in enemy hands.

Abdullah Jalali, a spokesman for Taliban commander Mawlavi Sangin, said in a telephone interview Thursday that the soldier was healthy.

He said the soldier would be killed unless the U.S. stops air strikes in Ghazni province’s Giro district and Paktika province’s Khoshamand district. Mr. Jalali did not explain why the Taliban chose those areas, noting only that Giro has been heavily bombed.

U.S. military spokeswoman Capt. Elizabeth Mathias declined to comment on the demands but said recent operations in Giro district this month did not involve bombings.

Neither district is in Helmand province, where Marines are conducting the largest U.S. military operation in Afghanistan since the Taliban rulers were toppled from power in 2001.

Mr. Jalali said the final decision about the soldier’s fate will be made by Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

The U.S. military has said the soldier was noticed missing during a routine check of the unit on June 30 and was “believed captured.” The Taliban claimed on its Web site July 6 that it was holding the soldier.

The soldier’s body armor and weapon were found on the base, and U.S. defense sources say he “just walked off” post with three Afghans after work. They said they have no explanation for why he left the base. The military has not identified the soldier.

The Canadian soldier was killed at dawn Thursday in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar, the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban, according to a statement issued by Canadian defense authorities. Previously, the deadliest months for the international force had been June and August of 2008, respectively, when 46 foreign troops died.

U.S. commanders had been expecting higher casualties since President Obama ordered 21,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan this year to curb a resurgent Taliban that threatens not only the U.S.-backed Kabul government, but also Afghanistan’s nuclear-armed neighbor, Pakistan.

About 57,000 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan, and the number is expected to rise to at least 68,000 by the end of 2009.

On Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the U.S. could send more troops to Afghanistan than had been planned. Mr. Gates told soldiers at Fort Drum in upstate New York that he is waiting to see what the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan - Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal - says he needs at the end of a review next week before making a decision.

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