KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — A British soldier who is part of the NATO-led international force fighting in southern Afghanistan went missing Monday in the country’s restive south and an extensive operation is under way to find him, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi claimed insurgents captured the soldier during a firefight with NATO troops in the Babaji area of Helmand province and that he died in the crossfire. Ahmadi said that six other NATO troops died in the gun fight.
The Taliban claim could not be independently confirmed.
NATO said the coalition has no reports of a gun battle in Babaji on Monday. NATO said its soldiers were still searching for the missing British soldier.
British officials said the serviceman was based in Helmand province and was reported missing in early Monday morning. It did not release the soldier’s name but said his family has been notified and is being updated as the search continues.
Only one soldier from the NATO-led force is presently believed to be in captivity. Bowe Bergdahl, a 25-year-old U.S. Army sergeant from Hailey, Idaho, was taken prisoner June 30, 2009, in Afghanistan. He is believed held in Pakistan.
Although the Helmand provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, is scheduled to transition security operations to Afghan control this month, the province remains a particularly violent insurgent stronghold.
Also Monday, the outgoing U.S. commander in Afghanistan marked his last Fourth of July in uniform by speaking to American troops during a re-enlistment ceremony in the south of the country.
Gen. David Petraeus, who was recently confirmed as the next director of the CIA, told the 235 troops re-enlisting in Kandahar province that they have achieved progress on the battlefield but that “much work remains” to be done in Afghanistan.
“You raised your right hand and said ‘Send me,’ and today you raised your right hand again and said ‘Send me again, if needed,’” he told the soldiers on America’s 235th birthday.
“I cannot say how impressive your action is,” he said. “It is the most meaningful display of patriotism possible.”
Petraeus will be replaced by U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen even as 33,000 U.S. troops begin to withdraw from Afghanistan, the start of President Barack Obama’s promised withdrawal of all combat troops by 2014.
Later Monday, Petraeus is to speak at another re-enlistment ceremony at Bagram Air Field, just north of Kabul.
In Islamabad, the foreign ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan issued a joint statement condemning attacks by Islamic militants along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in the Dir, Bajaur, Mohmand, and Kunar regions.
The statement was a shift in tone after weeks of accusations by Afghanistan that the Pakistani military had launched hundreds of rockets into eastern Afghanistan, killing at least 40 Afghan civilians. Pakistani officials had accused NATO and Afghanistan of failing to eradicate Afghan sanctuaries of militants currently staging attacks on Pakistan, killing dozens of security troops.
“Pakistan desires the closest of relations with Afghanistan,” read a statement from the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “We believe that both countries are faced with common challenges relating to militancy and terrorism which require deep and close cooperation.”
The two countries are planning future meetings to enhance coordination between each other and NATO, according to the statement.
Meanwhile, NATO said a service member was killed Monday in a bomb attack in eastern Afghanistan. The death brings the number of fatalities in Afghanistan this year to 271, three of them this month.
On Sunday, three U.S. Senators visiting Afghanistan criticized the pace of withdrawal and expressed concerns that it may leave NATO with too few troops to deal a decisive blow to the insurgency.
“I believe that the planned drawdown is an unnecessary risk,” John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, said. McCain arrived in Afghanistan with Sens. Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham. McCain lost to Obama in the 2008 presidential race.
Also on Sunday, five Afghan police officers were killed in a four-hour gun battle between Afghan security forces and NATO troops, and insurgents in the Bala Buluk district of Farah province in western Afghanistan.