CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan (AP) — International forces hunted Monday for a missing British soldier in Afghanistan amid insurgent claims that he had been captured and killed hours before the arrival of Britain’s prime minister, who cut short security talks to focus on the search.
David Cameron, making a two-day visit to the country’s southern Helmand province, said a search was ongoing for the British serviceman, but did not disclose details of his disappearance.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi claimed insurgents captured the soldier during a firefight with NATO troops in the Babaji area of Helmand province and that he died in the crossfire. Ahmadi said that six other NATO troops died in the gun fight.
The Taliban claim could not be independently confirmed.
NATO said the coalition has no reports of a gun battle in Babaji on Monday. NATO said its soldiers were still searching for the missing British soldier.
British officials said the serviceman was based in Helmand province and was reported missing in early Monday morning. It did not release the soldier’s name but said his family has been notified and is being updated as the search continues.
Only one soldier from the NATO-led force is presently believed to be in captivity. Bowe Bergdahl, a 25-year-old U.S. Army sergeant from Hailey, Idaho, was taken prisoner June 30, 2009, in Afghanistan. He is believed held in Pakistan.
Although the Helmand provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, is scheduled to transition security operations to Afghan control this month, the province remains a particularly violent insurgent stronghold.
British official said the soldier was missing from a base in central Helmand, and some reports claimed he may have been captured at or close to a checkpoint in Babaji area of southern Helmand.
In London, Defense Secretary Liam Fox told lawmakers that little was immediately known about the incident and warned “speculation on an issue of this nature is unhelpful.”
The defense ministry said the man’s next of kin had been informed, but released no details of his identity.
Cameron’s visit to announce a modest planned drawdown of Britain’s 9,500 forces was overshadowed by the search for the missing soldier.
The leader had been scheduled to visit a base in Lashkar Gah and meet Helmand’s governor at his residence, but canceled the plans as efforts were focused on the hunt.
“I just said when I got here, `Don’t bother about flying me around Helmand province, just use all you have got to try and find that person,'” Cameron told reporters at Camp Bastion, a British base close to Lashkar Gah. “Of course we are going to have challenges and problems right up until the end of the mission. Of course, it is a very regrettable incident.”
Cameron insisted that – despite the setback – the overall security picture in the region was improving, and that Afghan forces were growing in capability.
“We are entering a new phase in this country,” Cameron told around 200 U.S. Marines as he addressed a Fourth of July celebration at the U.S. Camp Leatherneck. “As President Obama said last week, and as I say today, that it is right that we are going to be able to bring some of our troops home, as the Afghans become more confident about delivering their own security.”
Cameron confirmed he will announce to Britain’s Parliament on Wednesday the details of a modest drawdown of U.K. forces – likely to see about 500 of the country’s 9,500 troops return home. An additional 450 personnel deployed on a temporary mission are already being pulled back by February.
“There will be an opportunity to bring some British soldiers home, we are talking relatively small numbers and over a period of time,” he said.
He said that British troop numbers will likely stay the same through next summer, but insisted that the 2014 international deadline of quitting a combat role in Afghanistan was not negotiable – even if local Afghan forces struggle to build on tentative signs that they are capable of providing the nation’s security.
Gen. David Richards, the head of Britain’s military, said the international strategy should not be to attempt to defeat Afghanistan’s insurgency by the end of 2014, but to ensure that local troops and soldiers were capable of performing the task themselves.
“We possibly set expectations at an unrealistic level, and tried to do too many things,” Cameron said. He added that work on development projects were “all very good things, but the first priority is security and that is the mission critical part of why we are here.”