BAGRAM, Afghanistan – Four suspected Arab terrorists broke out of a U.S. military detention facility in Afghanistan on Monday, fleeing through barbed wire stockades in the first escape from the compound since the American military took over the former Soviet airbase.
Also Monday, rescuers reported finding the body of a U.S. Navy SEAL (search), the last to be accounted for from a four-man special forces unit that disappeared after a June 28 ambush in the rugged mountains in the east of the country.
U.S. and Afghan forces launched a manhunt for the suspects, identified as Arabs from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Libya. U.S. soldiers set up roadblocks and helicopters clattered low over villages near the heavily guarded base north of the capital, Kabul (search).
Bagram (search) is in a wide, dusty plain at the foot of the Hindu Kush mountains, and much of the area around the base remains mined from Afghanistan's civil war and Soviet occupation. The base itself is surrounded by a series of barbed wire fences and is intensely guarded by U.S. troops. The main entrance is a series of checkpoints and all visitors are checked several times by U.S. military guards.
The escapes were another setback for the U.S. military as it struggles with insurgent fighting that has left more than 700 people dead in three months and threatened to sabotage three years of progress toward peace. Over the weekend, 22 Afghan soldiers were killed, including 10 who were beheaded.
The discovery of the body of the U.S. Navy SEAL in Kunar province on Sunday ended a desperate search for the final unaccounted for member of the special forces team. One of the four was rescued July 3, and two were found dead the next day.
U.S. military spokesman Col. James Yonts said the U.S. commando had died in fighting soon after the ambush, and he denied claims by a purported Taliban spokesman that the SEAL was captured alive and beheaded.
"There have been claims of being beheaded," he said. But "there was no indication supporting the claims. ... This individual was never in custody, he was never defamed or disgraced."
He said the injuries on the commando's body were consistent with "a firefight, a combat operation with smalls arms fire, RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] rounds."
Yonts said the commando's body was found near where a U.S. helicopter that was bringing reinforcements crashed in Korangal Valley in a rugged "area that we had looked over before. But where his body was located was hard to find."
Sixteen troops died in the June 28 chopper crash, the deadliest single attack on the U.S. military since the war began here in 2001.
The surviving commando was saved by an Afghan shepherd named Gulab, who found him wounded in the mountains and took him to his home, according to an article based on an interview with the villager in this week's edition of Time magazine.
Despite demands from the insurgents to hand over the American, Gulab and his neighbors refused because of a tribal honor code that bars them from refusing sanctuary to a guest, the report said. The shepherd later escorted the American to the nearest U.S. base in the town of Asadabad.
U.S. military officials in Kabul have declined to comment on how the commando was rescued.
The four terrorist suspects who escaped Monday from the U.S. military detention facility at Bagram were identified as Abdullah from Syria, Mohammed al-Qatari from Saudi Arabia, Mahmood Ahmad from Kuwait and Abulbakar Mohammed Hassan from Libya, according to local police chief Abdulrahman Mawalana.
"They are considered dangerous and are suspected terrorists," U.S. military spokeswoman Lt. Cindy Moore told The Associated Press.
Local government chief Kaber Ahmad said, "coalition forces, police and Afghan troops have surrounded several villages near the base," and have distributed photos of the four, who have short hair and long beards.
In the pictures, the men are wearing orange prison outfits and one man is grinning. Descriptions under the photos describe two of them as of Middle Eastern descent and the other as Arab. There is no description of the fourth.
Moore declined to identify the four escapees or elaborate on why they were being held. Another military spokesman, Lt. Col. Jerry O'Hara, described them only as "enemy combatants."
He said it was the first time anyone has broken out of Bagram's detention facility, where most of about 500 detainees in Afghanistan are held.
Suspected militants have broken out of other detention facilities. In 2003, 41 suspected Taliban rebels escaped from a government-run jail in the southern city of Kandahar by digging a tunnel.
U.S. and Afghan officials have warned the violence is likely to worsen ahead of legislative elections in September.
An airborne infantry battalion of about 700 troops based in North Bragg, N.C., was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan to bolster the 20,000-strong U.S.-led coalition so it can "enhance security during the election," Brig. Gen. Jack Sterling, a deputy commanding general, said in a statement.