KABUL, Oct 29 (AFP) – Two American CIA agents were killed during a hunt for terrorists in an Afghan border area described by the US army Wednesday as Afghanistan’s “most evil place.” Americans William Carlson, 43, and Christopher Glenn Mueller, 32, former military special operations officers, were killed in an ambush Saturday near the insurgency-hit southeast town of Shkin on the Pakistani border.
Their deaths bring to four the number of publicly acknowledged CIA deaths in Afghanistan since US-led forces began bombing the then Taliban-ruled country in October 2001 for harbouring Osama bin Laden.
They had been “tracking terrorists in the region”, the Central Intelligence Agency said in Washington.
On the same day near Shkin, US air and ground forces and their Afghan allies battled suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents in a fierce six-hour firefight, killing 18 militants, according to the US army.
“Shkin has always been a hot spot … Shkin is the most evil place in Afghanistan, Shkin is the most hot place,” Colonel Rodney Davis, spokesman for the 10,000 US troops still combing Afghanistan for Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants, told a briefing in Kabul.
But he refused to clarify whether the CIA deaths were linked to Saturday’s fighting, saying inquiries should be directed to the CIA.
Shkin is crawling with anti-US and anti-government insurgents. More US troops have been killed in Shkin than in any other part of Afghanistan, Davis said last month.
It lies 230 kilometers (143 miles) south of Kabul opposite the Pakistani tribal border town of Angoor Adda, where Pakistani troops have been pursuing al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters since early October.
Loyalists of the ousted Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies have been mounting increasing attacks on aid workers, troops and Afghan officials in south and southeast Afghanistan.
The neighbouring district of Birmal has been under Taliban control since August, local officials have told AFP.
On Saturday US A-10 Thunderbolt II warplanes and AH-64 Appache attack helicopters zoomed in over Shkin to back up allied Afghan troops when they clashed with up to 25 rebel fighters 44 kilometers (27 miles) south of Shkin.
US and Afghan troops “exchanged small-arms fire” with the rebels for six hours until they retreated, according to a US army statement issued late Tuesday from its Bagram air base headquarters, north of Kabul.
Paktika police chief Daulat Khan told AFP Monday that three Afghan troops and around 20 al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents were killed in Saturday’s battle.
The US army said there were no casualties on its side, making no mention of the CIA deaths.
Another firefight between militants and US troops broke out Monday in the same border region, 55 kilometers (34 miles) further north of Shkin at Urgun.
Three US troops were slightly wounded but have since returned to duty, Davis said.
Davis said foreign al-Qaeda fighters have made up the bulk of militants killed by US troops around Shkin in recent operations.
“A good number of the anti-coalition personnel we have killed recently in the Shkin area were al-Qaeda. A mixture of Chechens, Uzbeks or other nationalities,” he told reporters.
The United Nations Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations, Jean-Marie Guehenno, in a damning security report Friday said that the al-Qaeda allied Taliban had taken “de-facto control” of parts of the southeast border region.
The Afghan government issued a strong rejection of his assessment and said he was exaggerating the impact of pockets of Taliban insurgents.
Johnny Michael Spann was the first CIA officer killed in Afghanistan during the two-year-old US Operation Enduring Freedom, slain in an uprising by Taliban prisoners in November 2001. The second, Helge Boes, died in a training accident in February.