KABUL (Reuters) – U.S. forces searched for a sixth day on Sunday for a missing team of soldiers in eastern Afghanistan, the U.S. military said, while a news report said U.S. aircraft carried out fresh air strikes against militants. The BBC quoted unidentified U.S. military officials as saying civilians may have died in the bombing of a militant compound in Kunar province on Friday, but a U.S. spokeswoman said ground troops were still assessing the effects of the strike.
The BBC quoted an unidentified Afghan official as saying fresh air raids took place on Sunday in Kunar”s Nangalam Valley where Afghan ground forces met fierce militant resistance.
U.S. spokeswoman Lieutenant Cindy Moore said she had no information about any new air strikes. She also said she had no information about casualties from Friday, but said U.S. forces always tried to avoid targeting civilians.
Afghan officials in Kunar could not be reached and the Defense Ministry declined to comment.
Hundreds of U.S. and Afghan troops have been searching since Tuesday for a "small" U.S. reconnaissance team that went missing in Kunar just before a U.S. helicopter carrying 16 Special Forces troops to their aid was shot down, killing all aboard.
The helicopter casualties were the largest in a combat incident for U.S. forces in Afghanistan since they overthrew the Taliban in 2001.
They came amid growing violence by Taliban and allied militants aimed at derailing Sept. 18 parliamentary polls, the next big step in Afghanistan”s difficult path to stability.
U.S. spokesmen have not said how many U.S. troops are missing but say they have no reason to believe they have been killed or captured — contrary to Taliban claims.
The New York Times quoted an unidentified senior Pentagon official as saying the missing team numbered about a half-dozen soldiers. The last contact with them had been on Tuesday and the lack of radio contact since was worrisome, he said.
On Friday, U.S. spokesman Col. Jim Yonts said he could neither confirm nor deny a claim by Taliban spokesman Abdul Latif Hakimi that insurgents had killed seven U.S. "spies" before the helicopter was shot down.
On Friday Hakimi, whose information has often proved unreliable, said militants in Kunar had captured a U.S. soldier on Wednesday who had been aboard the helicopter when it crashed.
The U.S. military says militants in the area, bad weather and mountainous wooded terrain have hampered the search.
The Taliban”s Hakimi said on Saturday that 25 civilians had died in Friday”s air strikes on Chichil village.
The BBC quoted an unidentified Afghan official as confirming militant accounts that 25 people died in two raids, some of them villagers who went to help casualties from the first strike.
U.S. spokesman Lt. Col. Jerry O”Hara said Friday”s raid was launched based on intelligence using "precision-guided weapons."
"We conducted an air strike on a target we deemed we had to hit immediately," he said, adding: "Coalition missions are carefully planned and all possible efforts are taken to prevent non-combatant injuries or deaths."
Hundreds have died in militant-related violence since March, including 30 U.S. troops, hundreds of guerrillas, and dozens of members of the Afghan security forces.
Afghan officials have reported more than 50 other deaths, over half of them of insurgents, in Taliban-related violence in the restive south and east since Wednesday.