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Body of the 4th SEAL (missing) recovered

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The body of the missing SEAL was recovered.  He was found near where the other 2 died.  Apparently died in the firefight and was not captured.



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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Afghan villagers sheltered a U.S. Navy SEAL wounded in a battle last month with the Taliban until they could get word to American forces to rescue him, a military official said Monday.

The SEAL was part of a four-man reconnaissance team that went missing June 28 after calling for help during a firefight in the mountains near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

The other three members of the team died in the fighting, and a MH-47 helicopter crashed as it brought reinforcements, killing all 16 people on board.

The military said it believes insurgents shot down the chopper.

Military officials said a rocket exploded near the surviving SEAL, knocking him off his feet and down a mountainside in steep terrain. He then managed to stay out of sight of the insurgents, officials said.

The commando suffered multiple leg wounds but was able to walk about two miles (three or four kilometers) through the mountains to get away, according to a U.S. military official, who insisted on anonymity.

An Afghan villager found the SEAL and hid him in his village, the official said.

According to military accounts, Taliban fighters came to the village and demanded the American be turned over, but villagers refused.

The SEAL wrote a note verifying his identity and location, and a villager carried it to U.S. forces, the official said. The note indicated to U.S. troops that they wouldn't be entering into a trap. The commando was rescued July 3.

The military has not revealed his identity.

The bodies of two of the other SEALS -- Petty Officer 2nd Class Danny P. Dietz, 25, of Littleton, Colorado, and Lt. Michael P. Murphy, 29, of Patchogue, New York -- were recovered July 4.

The fourth man's body was found Sunday with the help of local Afghans, said the military, which late Monday identified him as Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew G. Axelson, 29, of Cupertino, California.

Taliban abduction denied
Axelson was found near the other two bodies and died in a shootout, according to an initial assessment from the field, a senior defense official said.

This senior official said that "no way" had the SEAL ever been in captivity, contrary to Taliban claims that he had been abducted.

"(He) was located during a combat search-and-rescue operation July 10 in Kunar province," the military said in a statement. "The location and disposition of the service member's remains indicate he died while fighting off enemy terrorists on or about June 28."

The Taliban is the fundamentalist Islamic regime that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001 when a U.S.-led coalition knocked it from power. It continues to conduct guerrilla operations in the country, particularly along the border with Pakistan.

Suspected Taliban gunmen beheaded 10 Afghan soldiers in a desert ambush near the Pakistan border, a provincial governor said Sunday, The Associated Press reported.

CNN's Barbara Starr contributed to this report.



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Monday, Jul. 11, 2005

How the Shepherd Saved the SEAL

Exclusive: The tale of an Afghan's amazing rescue of a wounded U.S. commando


A crackle in the brush. That's the sound the Afghan herder recalls hearing as he walked alone through a pine forest last month. When he looked up, he saw an American commando, his legs and shoulder bloodied. The commando pointed his gun at the Afghan. "Maybe he thought I was a Taliban," says the shepherd, Gulab. "I remembered hearing that if an American sticks up his thumb, it is a friendly gesture. So that's what I did." To make sure the message was clear, Gulab lifted his tunic to show the American he wasn't hiding a weapon. He then propped up the wounded commando, and together the pair hobbled down the steep mountain trail to Sabari-Minah, a cluster of adobe-and-wood homes--crossing, for the time being, to safety.

What Gulab did not know is that the commando he encountered was part of a team of Navy SEALs that had been missing for four days after being ambushed by Taliban insurgents during a reconnaissance mission in northeastern Afghanistan. An initial search mission to find the missing SEALs ended in disaster on June 28, when a Chinook helicopter carrying 16 service members was shot down over Kunar province, killing everyone aboard, in one of the deadliest attacks so far on U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Since then, the bodies of two of the missing SEALs have been recovered; another is still classified as missing, though the Taliban claims he was captured and beheaded.

One member of the team did survive. Though the military has not released the name of the SEAL (the U.S. military seldom gives out the names of its special-operations personnel), TIME pieced together his story on the basis of briefings with U.S. military officials in Afghanistan plus an exclusive account of how Gulab, an Afghan herdsman, rescued the wounded commando. What emerges is the tale of a courageous U.S. fighter facing impossible odds in unfamiliar terrain, stalked by the enemy and stripped of everything but his gun and his will to survive. But it is also a story of mercy and fraternity, showing that even in the war-scorched landscape of the Afghan mountains, little shoots of humanity sometimes have a chance to grow.

The clashes in Kunar province have highlighted a worrying surge in violence in Afghanistan, where 15,000 U.S. troops are based. Several months ago, U.S. and Afghan officials claimed the Taliban was a spent force. But the Islamist fighters and their al-Qaeda allies have sprung back with fresh recruits, new weaponry and advanced bombmaking skills passed on to them by terrorists in Iraq, officials in Kabul say.

It was in response to signs of a mounting threat from Taliban fighters that the four-man commando team found itself in the Afghan forests of Kunar province on June 28, maneuvering under low clouds and a drenching rain. The mission, code-named Operation Redwing, was to find and engage the enemy. But in late afternoon, the commandos sent back a one-line message to the "Ark," a coalition-forces operations room in Kabul. Accompanied by a warning chime, it read, "Troops in contact." Translation: a fire fight was under way.

That was the SEALs' last message. The tracking devices each carried went dead, possibly because the men ditched their heavy rucksacks so they could move unburdened, a U.S. official says. Within minutes of receiving the message, eight commandos and eight crewmen of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment piled into an MH-47 Chinook helicopter and sped out to help the trapped men.

According to accounts provided to U.S. commanders by the surviving Navy SEAL, the commando team had come under fierce attack from a large group of Taliban fighters, who pounded their location with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and a steady hail of small-arms fire. The clatter of the approaching Chinook may or may not have been audible to the SEALs, but the Taliban surely heard it. A second band of fighters turned and took a bead on the chopper, probably with a rocket- propelled grenade, and in what a U.S. official calls "a pretty lucky shot," knocked it out of the sky.

Now the four SEALs were truly alone. With night falling and the fog settling, they managed to slip through the Taliban fighters. Crawling and scrambling, they headed toward the high ridges, and the Taliban--who had them outnumbered, probably 5 to 1--gave chase.

U.S. officials say the commandos kept up a running fire fight with their pursuers for more than two miles. The known survivor recalls seeing two of his friends shot. At one point he blacked out, possibly from a mortar round landing close by. When he regained consciousness, two of his teammates--Petty Officer 2nd Class Danny Dietz, 25, and Lieutenant Michael Murphy, 29--were dead, and a third had vanished in the darkness and fog. The surviving SEAL dragged himself at least another mile up into the mountains. It was there he was found four days later by Gulab the shepherd.

After taking the SEAL to Sabari-Minah, Gulab called a village council and explained that the American needed protection from Taliban hunters. It was the SEAL's good fortune that the villagers were Pashtun, who are honor-bound never to refuse sanctuary to a stranger. By then, said Gulab, "the American understood that we were trying to save him, and he relaxed a bit."

The Taliban was not so agreeable. That night the fighters sent a message to the villagers: "We want this infidel." A firm reply from the village chief, Shinah, shot back. "The American is our guest, and we won't give him up as long as there's a man or a woman left alive in our village." As a precaution, the villagers moved the injured commando out of Gulab's house and hid him in a stable overnight, until it was safe for Gulab to make the six-hour trek down to the U.S. base at Asadabad and report that the SEAL--by then the subject of an intense search--was alive. Sometime later, Gulab went back to his village and then returned to Asadabad with the commando, this time reuniting the wounded and weary SEAL with his jubilant comrades.

The relief at recovering the missing commando has been tempered by the heavy loss of American life--and the knowledge that more fighting lies ahead. The Taliban's offensive shows no sign of waning and is apparently aimed at sabotaging September's parliamentary elections. U.S. Colonel Don McGraw, director of operations of the Combined Forces Command in Kabul, says that in the chaos of Afghanistan today, it is hard to distinguish among what is the work of the Taliban, drug traffickers and criminal gangs.

It is a testament to the persistent insecurity in Afghanistan that Gulab now fears that his act of compassion may mean his death warrant. After returning the SEAL, he went back to grab his family and flee before the Taliban would come round seeking revenge. In the mountains of Kunar, fear is rising again. --With reporting by Muhib Habibi/Asadabad