WASHINGTON – Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Ross Chapman was killed in Afghanistan Friday, becoming the first American soldier to die from hostile fire in the war on terrorism.
An unidentified CIA officer was also badly wounded when Chapman, 31, perished in an ambush in eastern Afghanistan, U.S. officials said.
The Army Special Forces soldier, who was a communications specialist, and the CIA officer were in Afghanistan's Paktia province to convene with local tribal leaders and were ambushed after the meeting. Gunfire was exchanged with the attackers, officials said.
The attack epitomized the dangerous tasks many American special operations forces take on when working with local Afghan fighters to coordinate the search for terror mastermind Usama bin Laden, his Al Qaeda lieutenants and senior Taliban members, Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, said.
"We still have a responsibility as part of this mission to root out pockets of resisting Taliban forces, as well as to continue to work to root out groups of Al Qaeda where we may find them inside Afghanistan – dangerous work, indeed," Franks told a news conference at Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla.
The attack took place where U.S. warplanes had struck several Al Qaeda and Taliban targets in the past few weeks.
Attempts to track down bin Laden and his partners in crime progressed Friday when Pakistan relinquished a top Al Qaeda leader to the U.S. officials and preparations were under way to also hand over a Taliban official.
Ibn Al-Shaykh al-Libi, who ran bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan, was moved from Pakistan to an American base in southern Afghanistan for questioning, U.S. officials said.
The United States also has arranged for Pakistan to hand over the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, according to a senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity. Pakistani authorities arrested Zaeef in Islamabad on Thursday.
The CIA officer was evacuated from Afghanistan, but no Afghan fighters working with the Americans were taken out, said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Franks said Chapman was in a U.S. team operating near the town of Khost, a few miles from the Pakistan border. U.S. warplanes attacked an Al Qaeda compound near Khost on Friday for the second straight day, but Franks said the attack was unrelated to the Green Beret's death.
The compound, which included a training site, buildings and caves, was attacked amid indications Al Qaeda fighters were regrouping there, perhaps preparing to slip across the border into Pakistan, U.S. officials said.
Franks said he did not know bin Laden's whereabouts, although he said there are indications the other main target of the U.S. manhunt in Afghanistan – Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar – is in the vicinity of Baghran, in central Afghanistan.
The only U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan before Friday were three Green Berets mistakenly hit by a U.S. airstrike north of Kandahar on Dec. 5. Two Army Rangers were killed when their Black Hawk helicopter crashed in Pakistan on Oct. 19.
On Nov. 25, CIA operative Johnny "Mike" Spann was killed when Al Qaeda prisoners revolted in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
At his news conference, Franks also said:
– U.S. forces have searched seven of the eight cave complexes of most interest in the mountainous Tora Bora area where some believe bin Laden had been hiding. He said a substantial number of bodies were found in the caves, as well as a tank and other weapons. U.S. forensic experts are examining the corpses to try to determine if any of those killed were Al Qaeda leaders.
– U.S. examinations of more than 40 sites in Afghanistan suspected of involvement in developing chemical, biological or nuclear weapons have turned up "considerable indication of interest and desire by Al Qaeda to acquire weapons of mass destruction," but no evidence the terrorists succeeded.
– The number of Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners under U.S. control topped 270, including the American Taliban fighter, John Walker Lindh. Franks said some prisoners will be moved to the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within 10 days. No decision has been made on when or where to move Lindh from a Navy ship, he said.
– Franks is working with the government of Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic, on arrangements for using a military base there as a transport hub for U.S. aircraft involved in the Afghanistan war.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.