Fears for British soldier missing in Afghanistan

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International forces in Afghanistan launched a huge manhunt after a British soldier went missing on Monday in one of the most dangerous parts of the war-ravaged country.

Afghan police in the southern province of Helmand, where mostly American and British troops are fighting a Taliban insurgency, said a British soldier had been kidnapped in the Gereshk area of Nahri Sarraj district.

The Briton's disappearance in one of the deadliest battlegrounds in a 10-year insurgency spotlights the deep insecurity in the country as the United States prepares to start withdrawing 33,000 troops.

NATO announced that one of its International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) soldiers had gone missing, before London identified the soldier as British and said an "extensive operation" had been launched to locate him.

The Taliban claimed that its fighters had kidnapped and killed a British soldier in Helmand, but there was no independent confirmation and the militia is known to routinely exaggerate its claims.

"The individual was based in central Helmand and was reported missing in the early hours of this morning," Britain's defence ministry said.

"His next of kin have been informed and they will be updated as the operation continues. We will not release any further details at present."

ISAF also said "an active search effort" was underway to find the soldier.

Mirza Khan, assistant to the chief of police in Gereshk, said: "He went missing last night from his outpost and since then we've had no news about him."

But Taliban spokesman Qari Yosuf Ahmadi told AFP that the British soldier had been captured and later killed by insurgents in battle with foreign forces.

A spokesman for the British embassy in Kabul, Will Calladine, gave no further details, but said: "Obviously this is a sensitive issue. Our primary concern is for the person's safety."

Last week marked the second anniversary of the kidnapping of a US soldier, Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured by Taliban believed to be allied to the militant Haqqani network from his base in Paktika near the Pakistan border.

Bergdahl has since appeared in several videos released by the Taliban, including one in April 2010 that showed him heavily bearded and wearing a US Army jacket, pleading for his release.

On Sunday, senior US lawmakers visiting Afghanistan slammed President Barack Obama's plans to bring home thousands of troops as "risky" and a threat to gains made against Taliban in the last year.

Senator John McCain, a Republican, said the gradual removal of 33,000 American troops by the end of next summer was "an unnecessary risk" and that was "why there was no military leader who recommended it."

Both General David Petraeus, the US commander on the ground in Afghanistan, and Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have said Obama's plan was more "aggressive" than they had recommended.

McCain spoke to media with fellow Republican senators Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman in the Afghan capital during a two-day trip that included a meeting with President Hamid Karzai and visits to US troops.

Obama late last month announced that 10,000 troops would leave this year and all 33,000 personnel sent as part of a surge ordered in late 2009 would be home by next summer, leaving a US force of some 65,000.

There are currently up to 150,000 foreign forces in Afghanistan, including about 99,000 from the United States.

Obama has indicated a series of drawdowns until Afghan forces assume full security responsibility in 2014.

© 2011 AFP

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