By David Brunnstrom
Mon Jul 11, 5:11 AM ET
KABUL (Reuters) - The body of a U.S. Navy SEAL commando who was the last of a group of four that went missing in Afghanistan last month has been found and it appears he was killed in action, the U.S. military said on Monday.
The military rejected claims by a Taliban spokesman that the commando had been captured and beheaded, saying indications were he had been killed in a clash with militants in Kunar province on or about June 28, the day the team went missing.
The military said two of the missing commandos were found dead on July 4, having been killed in action, while another was found alive the previous day.
The discovery of the last body brought to an end a bloody two-week search operation that cost the lives of 16 other U.S. troops.
The 16 were aboard a helicopter that crashed while on a mission to find the four-man team.
Afghan officials said 17 civilians were also killed in a strike by a giant U.S. B-52 bomber during the search.
The losses were the heaviest for the United States in a single combat operation in Afghanistan.
This year has become the bloodiest for U.S. forces in the country and the deaths come amid stepped-up militant violence ahead of Sept. 18 parliamentary elections, the next big step in Afghanistan's difficult path to stability.
The body of the missing commando was found in Kunar on Sunday, U.S. military spokesman Colonel Jim Yonts said.
U.S. REJECTS TALIBAN CLAIMS
Yonts told a news briefing the missing commando was found in the vicinity of the helicopter crash site and his wounds were consistent with those from a firefight involving small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.
"Our forces on the ground that located this body are very confident that this individual was never in custody and he was never defamed or disgraced by anybody from enemy forces."
Yonts said U.S.-led forces were continuing an air and ground campaign to rid Kunar of militants, an eastern province that borders Pakistan.
He said there was evidence militants were receiving support, including money and equipment, from outside Afghanistan, but he avoided criticism of Pakistan, saying the military was confident it was doing all it could to support the U.S.-led war on terror.
Yonts said militants would not succeed in derailing the elections and the casualties would not deter the United States.
"It is a sad day, but the war on terrorism is a war that we must win and we will win," he said.
U.S. media have said the deaths of eight Navy SEALs aboard the helicopter and those on the ground, were the heaviest ever losses in a combat operation for the 2,400-strong elite force.
Hundreds of people have been killed, many of them guerrillas, since the Taliban and allies stepped up violence in March.
Afghan authorities say they found the decapitated bodies of six policemen on Saturday, a day after they were abducted in a Taliban ambush in Helmand province.
They said four more policemen were killed in the ambush and violence claimed 18 other lives in the troubled south on Sunday.
At least 32 U.S. troops have been killed in action since March but overall U.S. casualties in Afghanistan since U.S. forces overthew the Taliban in late 2001 remain a fraction of those on the other key U.S. front in Iraq since 2003.
By David Brunnstrom