BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP- U.S. troops searched Sunday for two missing soldiers in the volatile Sunni triangle south of Baghdad as witnesses claimed the Americans were led away by masked gunmen after the attack that left one of their comrades dead.
Ground forces, helicopters and airplanes fanned out shortly after Friday’s attack and U.S. military spokesman U.S. Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said Saturday that four raids had been carried out.
He said a dive team also was to search for the men, whose checkpoint was near a Euphrates River canal not far from Youssifiyah, 12 miles south of Baghdad — in the so-called triangle of death, named for the frequent ambushes against U.S. soldiers and Iraqi troops in the area.
Ahmed Khalaf Falah, a farmer who said he witnessed the attack Friday, said three Humvees were manning a checkpoint when they came under fire from many directions. Two of the vehicles went after the assailants, but the third was ambushed before it could move, he told The Associated Press.
Seven masked gunmen, including one with what he described as a heavy machine gun, killed the driver of the third vehicle, then took the two other U.S. soldiers captive, the witness said. The account could not be verified.
The U.S. military said Sunday it was continuing the search but had no new information to provide.
“Coalition and Iraqi forces will continue to search everywhere possible, uncovering every stone, until our soldiers are found, and we will continue to use every resource available in our search,” it said.
The New York Times also reported in its Sunday editions that Iraqi residents in the area said they saw two U.S. soldiers taken prisoner by a group of masked guerrillas. It said the two surviving soldiers were led to two cars and driven away.
Falah also said tensions were high in the area as U.S. soldiers raided some houses and arrested men. He also said the Americans were setting up checkpoints on all roads leading to the area of the attack and helicopters were hovering at low altitudes.
He did not give more details and no new raids were announced by the military early Sunday.
The military said Saturday that soldiers at a nearby checkpoint heard small-arms fire and explosions during the attack that occurred at 7:15 p.m. on Friday, and a quick-reaction force reached the scene within 15 minutes. The force found one soldier dead but no sign of the two others.
“We are currently using every means at our disposal on the ground, in the air and in the water to find them,” said Caldwell, the spokesman for U.S. forces in Baghdad.
He said blocking positions were established throughout the area within an hour of the attack to keep suspects from fleeing.
He also noted the military was still searching for Sgt. Keith Matthew Maupin, who went missing on April 9, 2004.
“We continue to search using every means available and will not stop looking until we find the missing soldiers,” he said.
Maupin was captured when insurgents ambushed his fuel convoy with the 724th Transportation Co. west of Baghdad. A week later, Arab television network Al-Jazeera aired a videotape showing Maupin sitting on the floor surrounded by five masked men holding automatic rifles.
That June, Al-Jazeera aired another tape purporting to show a U.S. soldier being shot. But the dark, grainy tape showed only the back of the victim’s head and did not show the actual shooting. The Army ruled it was inconclusive whether the soldier was Maupin.
A 20-year-old private first class at the time of his capture, Maupin has been promoted twice since then.