GI, Taliban Chief Killed in Afghanistan

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An American soldier and an Afghan interpreter were killed in a clash between coalition forces and militants that also left a regional Taliban (search) commander dead, officials said Friday.

The U.S. and Afghan forces were moving into position for an offensive operation when the firefight broke out Thursday in Daychopan district of the volatile southern province of Zabul (search), the U.S. military said in a statement.

Ali Khail, spokesman for the governor of southern Zabul province, identified the slain commander as Thor Mullah Manan.

The statement said Manan was in command of three other Taliban sub-commanders and responsible for the movement of equipment and personnel throughout the northwest Zabul province — regarded as a hotbed of Taliban-led insurgents.

The military did not identify the dead American, the latest in a series of U.S. combat fatalities amid a surge of violence ahead of Sept. 18 elections. The violence has claimed about 1,100 lives across Afghanistan in the last six months, including hundreds of suspected rebels.

An Afghan interpreter was also killed in the clash, the statement said.

The former Taliban militia, ousted from power by U.S.-led forces in late 2001, oppose the elections, a key step in the country's transition to democracy after years of war and civil strife.

"We anticipated an increase of enemy action as we get closer to election day, and are always saddened when a U.S. soldier or Afghan gives his life in the ultimate sacrifice," said Brig. Gen. James G. Champion (search), deputy commander of Combined Joint Task Force-76 (search).

The military said another U.S. soldier and Afghan interpreter were wounded in another incident northeast of the main southern city of Kandahar (search), when their patrol came under small-arms fire.

Khail also reported that three other Taliban fighters blew themselves up Friday while planting a land mine on a road in Zabul's Arghandab district, just north of Kandahar.

Separately, Taliban attacked a police checkpoint in the Greisht district of Helmand province Thursday, triggering a shootout that left one rebel dead and two wounded, said Khan Mohammed, the head of police in the district.

In southern Afghanistan, two bodies found are suspected to be those of Japanese tourists missing in the region since early last month, Afghan officials said.

The bodies — a man and woman — arrived in the Afghan capital on Friday for identification. An autopsy will be performed, Japanese Ambassador Norihiro Okuda said he could not confirm whether they were the missing Japanese.

"I can't say anything. Nothing is confirmed. We are in a process of investigation," he said. "I hope that the two missing Japanese are still alive."

Villagers found the bodies late Thursday night in the desert about four miles from the main road linking the southern city of Kandahar to the border with Pakistan, said Kandahar provincial Gov. Asadullah Khalid.

No identification papers were found with the bodies, but one was of a man and appeared to be Japanese, he said. The other, a woman, was unrecognizable. Both appeared to have been fatally shot several days ago, Khalid said.

The two missing Japanese — a man and a woman — crossed into Afghanistan from Pakistan on Aug. 8 and had not been seen or heard from since. They apparently were tourists.