Kabul: The discovery of the body of a second US sailor who vanished in Afghanistan last week only deepened the mystery of the men`s disappearance nearly 60 miles from their base in a dangerous area controlled by the Taliban.
An investigation is under way, but with both sailors dead, US authorities remained at a loss on Thursday to explain what two junior enlisted men in non-combat jobs were doing driving alone in Logar province, where much of the countryside is not under government control.
"This is like a puzzle," said Abdul Wali, deputy head of the governing council in Logar.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Justin McNeley — father of two boys aged 5 and 9 — from Kingman, Arizona, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Jarod Newlove, 25, from the Seattle area, disappeared in the province on July 23. McNeley`s body was recovered there on Sunday and Newlove`s body was pulled from a river Wednesday evening, Afghan officials said.
A US military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak publicly about the case, confirmed on Thursday that Newlove`s relatives had been notified of his death.
At the Newlove`s house in west Seattle, where children`s chalk drawings adorned the sidewalk, a big sign on the door said: "The family has no comment. Please respect our privacy."
The US Navy confirmed the Seattle-area man`s death on Thursday. Afghan officials say Newlove`s body was pulled from a river Wednesday evening. The body of Petty Officer 2nd Class Justin McNeley of Kingman, Ariz, has also been recovered.
An investigation is under way.
Newlove`s father, Joseph Newlove, told KOMO-TV in Seattle that he too was at a loss to explain why his son left Kabul.
"He`s never been out of that town. So why would he go out of that town? He wouldn`t have," he said.
Officials at the NATO-led coalition headquarters in Kabul have not offered an explanation as to why the two service members were driving a heavily armoured vehicle so far from their base at Camp Julien, a training facility on the western edge of the city.
A NATO official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the case was being investigated, said it was unclear what the two were doing, what prompted them to leave their compound or whether they were on official business.
Senior military officials in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case, said the sailors were never assigned anywhere near where their bodies were found.
The NATO official in Kabul shot down speculation that the two had been abducted in Kabul and driven to Logar — the same province where New York Times reporter David Rohde was kidnapped in 2008 while trying to make contact with a Taliban commander. Rohde and an Afghan colleague escaped in June 2009 after seven months in captivity, most spent in Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan.
Samer Gul, chief of Logar`s Charkh district, said the two sailors, in a four-wheel drive armoured SUV, were seen on Friday by a guard working for the district chief`s office. The guard tried to flag down the vehicle, carrying a driver and a passenger, but it kept going, Gul said.
"They stopped in the main bazaar of Charkh district. The Taliban saw them in the bazaar," Gul said. "They didn`t touch them in the bazaar, but notified other Taliban that a four-wheel vehicle was coming their way."
The second group of Taliban tried to stop the vehicle, but when it didn`t, insurgents opened fire and the occupants in the vehicle shot back, he said. The NATO official confirmed that the vehicle had been shot up.
Gul said there is a well-paved road that leads into the Taliban area and suggested the Americans may have mistaken that for the main highway — which is much older and more dilapidated.
Wali, the deputy head of the governing council in Logar, insisted the Taliban did not plan the incident. Initially, the insurgents didn`t know if they should claim responsibility or not, he said.