Afghan Taliban says they have missing U.S. soldier

KHOST, Afghanistan (Reuters) - A Taliban commander in southeastern Afghanistan said on Thursday a missing U.S. soldier is being held by insurgents and is unharmed but warned the military he will be killed if they try to find him.

The soldier has been missing in southeastern Paktika province since late June, just before thousands of U.S. Marines began a major new offensive in the Taliban heartland of Helmand in the south.

The U.S. military says the soldier is presumed captured and said it is doing all it can to get the soldier back.

Taliban commander Mawlavi Sangin accused the U.S. military of harassing and arresting Afghans in Paktika and neighboring Ghazni province in their search for the soldier.

“They have put pressure on the people in these two provinces and if that does not stop we will kill him,” Sangin, the Taliban commander for Paktika province, told a Reuters reporter by telephone from an undisclosed area.

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“The soldier is fine and safe and our leadership council will decide about his fate,” he said.

U.S. military spokeswoman Captain Elizabeth Mathias said the military had posted and distributed leaflets in Paktika and neighboring Ghazni province calling for his safe return.

“One of our American guests is missing. Return the guest to his home,” reads the leaflet, which includes a phone number and shows a U.S. soldier shaking hands with smiling Afghan children.

Mathias said another leaflet had been distributed which read: “If you do not release the U.S. soldier then you will be hunted.” It shows U.S. soldiers kicking in the door of a house.

The Taliban’s Sangin said the soldier was captured by his men in an area of Paktika bordering Pakistan and gave some brief details about his age and background.

The Taliban have vowed to drive tens of thousands of foreign troops out of Afghanistan and topple the Western-backed Afghan government. Afghanistan votes in a presidential poll on August 20.

The Helmand offensive, in conjunction with a similar British effort, is the first major operation under U.S. President Barack Obama’s new regional strategy to defeat the Taliban and its militant Islamist allies and stabilize Afghanistan.

With military commanders warning of a spike in casualties during the offensive, July has already equaled the deadliest monthly tally in the eight-year-old war, with 46 foreign troops killed in the first two weeks of the month.

Writing by Sayed Salahuddin and Jonathon Burch; Editing by Paul Tait