By Jonathon Burch
KABUL (Reuters) - A British soldier has gone missing in southern Afghanistan and an extensive search is underway, the British Defense Ministry said Monday.
The Taliban said they had captured and killed him, but Reuters could not independently verify the claim and the hardline Islamists often exaggerate battlefield exploits.
"The individual was based in central Helmand and was reported missing in the early hours of this morning," the Ministry of Defense said. His next of kin have been informed.
A spokesman for the Taliban told Reuters the militant group had captured the soldier Sunday and had executed him in the Babaji area of southern Helmand.
"The soldier was captured yesterday evening during a firefight. When the fighting got more intense we couldn't keep him so we had to kill him," Qari Mohammad Yousuf said by telephone from an undisclosed location.
A spokesman from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force declined to comment on the Taliban claim.
More than 2,500 foreign troops have died in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001. News of another missing soldier will likely add to public opposition in Western countries for a war that has now dragged on for nearly 10 years.
The three other service members who went missing in Afghanistan were all American, and were all captured or killed by the Taliban.
In June 2009, insurgents captured American soldier Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in southeastern Afghanistan and have released videos showing him in captivity dressed in both Afghan clothing and in military uniform.
In those videos, Bergdahl is seen denouncing the war in Afghanistan and calling for the United States to withdraw its troops from the country, in what the U.S. Military has called illegal propaganda.
In July 2010, two sailors from the U.S. Navy went missing in Logar province, south of the Afghan capital, prompting an extensive manhunt. The dead bodies of both sailors were found days later in Logar.
The sailors went missing after failing to return in a vehicle they had taken from their compound in Kabul, ISAF had said, but officials have declined to give anything but scant details since, prompting speculation they had acted outside the chain of command.
Violence has flared in Afghanistan since Taliban insurgents began their spring offensive at the start of May, after record deaths in 2010.
Foreign military casualties were slightly lower in the first six months of 2011 than the same period of 2010, but the United Nations has said May 2011 was the deadliest month for civilians since it started keeping records four years ago.
In late June, U.S. President Barack Obama announced a plan to start withdrawing 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2011, followed by about 23,000 more by the end of next summer.
This gradual drawdown is part of a Kabul-backed plan for Afghan forces to take the lead in securing the entire country by the end of 2014 when foreign troops are due to cease combat operations, remaining only in a training and supporting role.
The U.S. military has tried to distance itself from Obama's withdrawal plan over the next year, telling the U.S. Congress they sought a slower, less risky drawdown.
Extra U.S. troops ordered into Afghanistan by Obama in 2009 have mostly been fighting in the Taliban's southern heartland, where commanders say they have made some security gains but that those gains were fragile and reversible.
(Additional reporting by Ismail Sameem in Kandahar and Abdul Malik in Lashkar Gah; Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Yoko Nishikawa)