KABUL, Afghanistan – Two U.S. Marines were killed and another wounded in an attack in eastern Afghanistan, where troops are hunting Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters, the U.S. military said Friday.
The deaths brought to at least 92 the number of American troops killed in or around Afghanistan since the start of the campaign that ousted the Taliban in late 2001, and came as insurgents intensify attacks ahead of national elections.
The clash occurred late Thursday in Kunar, a province on the border with Pakistan, military spokesman 1st Sgt. Dave Dyer said. The wounded Marine was in stable condition. None of the Marines was identified.
“Two Marines were killed and one was wounded during an operation northeast of Asadabad,” the provincial capital, Dyer said, without elaborating on the nature of the operation.
Commanders sent 2,000 extra Marines into Afghanistan in the spring, helping swell the U.S.-dominated coalition force to 20,000 – its largest yet – in an attempt to track down al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and take the fight to Taliban-led rebels ahead of the September elections.
The American military is also funneling millions in reconstruction aid to Afghan villagers in the hope they will provide intelligence on enemy movements.
But they have been unable to halt violence that has killed more than 500 people across the country this year – delaying registration of voters and raising doubts over whether it is possible to keep the election free and fair.
U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai on Friday met with the visiting Gen. James Jones, NATO’s top operational commander, and reiterated his intention to hold the vote on schedule.
He urged NATO, which is holding a summit in Turkey next week, to boost its current 6,400 peacekeeping force as promised, so Afghans “can go to the ballot box without fear,” presidential spokesman Hamed Elmi said.
NATO nations have been slow to commit forces to move beyond the capital and help stabilize northern Afghanistan, while U.S.-led combat troops track and battle rebels in the south and east.
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Friday urged NATO to keep its promise to send more troops to Afghanistan, saying plans for the nation’s first free elections are threatened by mounting violence.
Ambassadors from the 26 NATO allies met through the day Friday in Brussels, Belgium. The alliance is expected to approve plans to widen its U.N.-backed peacekeeping mission beyond the capital, Kabul, and the northern city of Kunduz.
After months of delays, officials at the meeting were confident European allies would offer the necessary troops, planes and helicopters to expand the mission to five more cities in the north.
The U.S. Marines have been in the thick of some of the bloodiest fighting. In southeastern Zabul province – a remote Taliban heartland – more than 80 insurgents have been killed in the past month, the heaviest casualties in nearly a year.
A smaller, separate Marine force patrols in Kunar, farther north at the other end of a broad swath of territory plagued by the rebels.
The chief of Kunar police, Matiullah Safi, said American warplanes on Thursday bombarded a mountain about four miles outside Asadabad, where the U.S. military has a base. He had no information on casualties.
The base in Asadabad, 120 miles east of the capital, regularly comes under fire from militants, but the attacks with rockets and small arms rarely cause casualties.
On its Web site, the U.S. Department of Defense lists 90 American casualties in Afghanistan as of Thursday.
Of the 92 U.S. troops who have now died in Afghanistan since late 2001, 52 have been killed in action. The Marines’ first combat fatality came when one of its members was killed in an attack on a patrol in May.