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Afghan Soldiers May Have Beheaded Taliban Captives

A senior Afghan militia commander said Wednesday that troops from Afghanistan's U.S.-trained national army beheaded four Taliban fighters to avenge the similar slaying of an Afghan soldier and a military interpreter. He later retracted his statement after a strong government denial.

Naimatullah Khan, corps commander of southeastern Zabul province (search), initially said the killings occurred Monday in the Arghandab district of the province.

Afghan National Army (search) troops sent to look for an interpreter and soldier who became separated from a combined Afghan-U.S. force found their corpses and severed heads on a mountainside, Khan said. Four Taliban fighters were caught in a search of the area, he said.

"The ANA soldiers did the same thing. They cut off their heads," Khan told The Associated Press by telephone. Troops left the bodies where they found them, he said.

If verified, the decapitations would mark an escalation in violence plaguing much of Afghanistan's south and east, especially Zabul, in recent weeks. The U.S. military says it has killed more than 80 rebels in the area since May 25.

It would also be a setback for the American-led attempt to build a disciplined, professional Afghan fighting force so that foreign troops can ultimately leave. The national army currently numbers about 10,000, far short of the projected 70,000.

American soldiers typically accompany ANA units during operations, but Khan said none was present when the decapitations took place.

Lt. Col. Tucker Mansager, a spokesman for the U.S. military, said Wednesday it had "no independent confirmation" about the beheadings. He declined to comment further.

But a Defense Ministry spokesman said the report was "not correct."

The national army "treats prisoners properly. They have been taught the laws of war," spokesman Mohammed Zahir Azimi said. "They even take injured prisoners to hospital."

Khan, who gave a similar account of the beheadings to other news organizations, later called the AP to retract his statement. He offered no explanation.

Also Wednesday, five Afghan soldiers were killed and two others were seriously wounded when their vehicle hit a mine in a desert area near the border town of Spin Boldak (search), a local commander said.

"It was a newly laid mine," said Abdul Raziq, the commander of a militia unit guarding the border with Pakistan. "The vehicle was totally destroyed."

Mansager said seven rocket-propelled grenades were fired Tuesday at a U.S. military base in the southeastern town of Khost, slightly wounding two soldiers and three Afghan interpreters.

All have returned to duty, he said.