Special Forces soldier killed in eastern Afghanistan

MUSA QAL'EH, Afghanistan — A U.S. Army Special Forces soldier was killed Friday by hostile fire in eastern Afghanistan, underscoring the dangers that American forces face from pockets of Taliban and al-Qaida resistance.

The soldier, identified by the Pentagon as Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Ross Chapman, 31, of San Antonio, was the first member of U.S. military forces to die in enemy gunfire in 90 days of conflict. His death came amid signs that Mullah Mohammad Omar and Osama bin Laden may be trying to bribe their way out of Afghanistan.

Pakistani law enforcement officials told Knight Ridder on Friday that two Afghans carrying large sums of money and traveling toward the Afghan border were arrested Tuesday. The pair told investigators they were taking the money to an Arab national in Afghanistan.

Officers from the force that patrols tribal areas in Pakistan near the border found the men carrying $30,000 in U.S. dollars, plus 36,900 Pakistani rupees ($614), 85,000 Iranian rials ($49) and a small amount of Afghanis, the officials said, speaking on condition their names not be used.The pair said the funds were sent to Pakistan via a hawala, an informal banking network popular in the Mideast and South Asia, from the Persian Gulf state of Dubai, according to the Frontier Constabulary official. The two were turned over to Pakistani military officials for questioning.

Chapman, a communications specialist, was assigned to Fort Lewis, Wash., but had been attached in Afghanistan with the 5th Special Forces Group from Fort Campbell, Ky., said Maj. Gary Kolb, spokesman for Army Special Operations Command.

He was operating in the same general area of eastern Afghanistan where the two Afghans carrying the money were headed.

Chapman was killed in an exchange of small arms fire in eastern Afghanistan a few miles from the Pakistan border. He had served in the Army since 1988, in large part with Special Forces, Kolb said late Friday.

Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of coalition forces in the region, announced the death from his Central Command headquarters in Florida. He said that no other American military personnel were hurt but that he did not know if any "bad guys" had been killed or wounded.

A second U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that a CIA officer was wounded in the incident but was expected to recover.

Franks said American military action is concentrated north of Baghran in Helmand Province in central Afghanistan and in eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistan border.

Franks said of the soldier: "What we know right now is that the mission he was on, as part of a team, was to coordinate with some local tribal elements in the vicinity of Gardez-Khost."

Nine other American military personnel have died in accidents or friendly fire since the United States began military operations Oct. 7. And CIA operative Johnny "Mike" Spann was killed during a prison uprising in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

The casualty Friday was unrelated to U.S. bombing attacks over a two-day period on a former al-Qaida training facility also near Khost, Franks said.

After intelligence officials got word that al-Qaida forces may have reoccupied the abandoned camp at Zawar Kili, American warplanes pounded it with 105 to 110 bombs, each weighing 2,000 pounds.

With ever-widening access to former Taliban areas of Afghanistan, the United States continues to hunt out former leaders of the regime and their al-Qaida allies.

The U.S. military has in custody a senior member of al-Qaida who was turned over by Pakistan _ where he apparently was captured _ and was being sent to a U.S. Navy vessel in the Arabian Sea for imprisonment and interrogation, a senior U.S. official said late Friday.

The al-Qaida operative, identified as Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, "is probably the senior most al-Qaida guy that we've gotten alive," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The prisoner was a close aide to Abu Zubeidah, one of bin Laden's military commanders, and in charge of military training for the terrorist network, the official said, describing him as being in the "top 15 or 20" in al-Qaida's hierarchy. While his capture is potentially a major intelligence haul, the official noted that al-Qaida prisoners have shown little signs of cooperating once in captivity.

Al-Libi was named in a list of individuals and groups whose assets were frozen by President Bush under an executive order in late September.

In the hunt for Taliban leader Omar, American Special forces passed through Musa Qal'eh in northern Helmand Province with anti-Taliban fighters Friday.

Franks said "we've received indications" he might be in that area. But local fighters said he was not there.

"There has been nobody in this area to fight us," said Haji Abdul Mohammed, the post-Taliban government leader in the area.

Franks said that he did not really know where Omar or bin Laden was hiding.

In a nearly hour-long news conference Friday, Franks updated Americans on the process of the war in greater detail than has been provided by other officials in recent weeks.

The four-star general said that the public should no longer expect daily headlines on U.S. bombing strikes or other dramatic action.

Like a baseball game, he said, the war for the foreseeable future will consist of "a very calm atmosphere . . . interrupted by spikes of adrenaline."

U.S. Special Forces are also observing the "transfer of arms" as some Taliban and al Qaida holdouts in northeastern Afghanistan continue to surrender to Afghan authorities. He said this was in the area of Bagram and Deh Rawud, north of Kandahar.

Intelligence sources have identified 48 terrorist camps and other military targets that require up-close inspection by U.S. troops. So far, Frank said, 40 of these have been "looked into."

Special Forces also continue their slow, dangerous investigation of eight caves in the Tora Bora area. Seven so far have been combed, with at least two tanks turned up.

"We continue to screen, process, interrogate thousands of detainees," Franks said.

Of these, about 270 are in American custody. Within a week to 10 days, some may soon be moved to a U.S. military prison now being prepared at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Some may end up on American soil.

With the American military likely to remain in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, the military has begun plans to rotate its personnel, the general said. Service members may come and go in intervals of three months or six months.

Wearing a camouflage uniform with sleeves rolled up, Franks leaned casually on a lectern while talking. He gave these other updates:

  • U.S. Special Forces are operating in Pakistan, alongside Pakistani forces, to cut off retreating Taliban and al-Qaida fighters.
  • The United States is negotiating with the government of Kyrgyzstan, north of Afghanistan, for use of an air base. Franks said the field at Manas would be used to transfer cargo from large cargo planes to smaller planes capable of landing at Afghan airfields.
  • The United States is looking into a United Nation reports that up to 52 civilians had been killed in a Dec. 28 air attack on what he called a military target in the village of Qalaye Niazi. "We will investigate it," he said.
  • ___

    Infield reported from Washington, Landay from Islamabad, Pakistan, and Brown from Musa Qal'eh, Afghanistan. Tom Lasseter and Warren P. Strobel in Washington contributed to this report.