An Italian freelance photographer and his assistant have been abducted in southern Afghanistan, an Afghan official said on Sunday.
Gabriele Torsello and his Afghan translator were abducted by five armed men on Saturday as they drove from Lashkar Gah, the capital of the southern Helmand province, to Kandahar, an official in Helmand said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The two were in their car when they were abducted, the official said.
Torsello earlier spent time in Musa Qala, another restive area in Helmand province, the official said.
Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, who claims to speak for the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, denied the militants abducted the pair. Ahmadi, whose exact ties to the militants are not known, told an Associated Press reporter in Kandahar in a phone call from an undisclosed location that Torsello had spend some time with Taliban fighters in Musa Qala "who showed him the area." Afghan security forces detained Torello twice during his nearly one-month stay in southern Afghanistan, said Ghulam Nabi Malakheil, Helmand's police chief. He was quickly released both times once authorities confirmed his identity, he said.
Malakheil said police have not detained him this time around. Maj. Luke Knittig, a NATO spokesman in Kabul, said they were informed by another reporter, whom he did not identify, that Torsello had not been in contact for the last three days and that they were trying to locate him. The alliance could not confirm the kidnapping.
The missing reporter was not registered with the NATO media office and was not on an alliance-sponsored trip, Knittig said. The Italian ambassador in Kabul, Ettore Francesco Sequi, told Italian state radio Sunday morning that Italian Foreign Ministry officials were in Afghanistan working on the case. Maso Notarianni, the director of Italian online magazine Peace Reporter, told Italian state TV that Torsello had called a hospital in Lashkar Gah, apparently to let authorities know he was kidnapped. "Until Thursday he was in the deep south of Afghanistan, in Taliban-controlled territory," Notarianni said.
The southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar have been the scene of the most intense fighting between Taliban and NATO troops this year, in the worst upsurge in violence in the country since the US-led invasion in 2001 that ousted the Taliban regime from power. The reporter's abduction comes a week after two German journalists working for that country's national broadcaster were killed in northern Afghanistan _ the first foreign journalists murdered in the country since late 2001.
"Coming so soon, after the (death of the German reporters) ... this is a matter of great concern for all of the international community and for the Afghan authorities," said Aleem Sidique, a United Nations spokesman in Kabul.
In other violence, clashes in the east left at least three police and three militants killed.
Police shot dead two suspected militants on a motorbike who attacked their patrol in Paktika province on Sunday, said Sayeed Jamal, the spokesman for the province's governor. Separately, a three-hour clash with militants in neighboring Khost province late on Saturday left three police dead, one missing and two wounded, said Gen. Mohammed Ayub, Khost's police chief. One Taliban was killed in the clash near the border with Pakistan, Ayub said.
Militants used rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns during the attack, Ayub said.
Also Sunday, two gunmen on a motorbike killed a Kandahar provincial council member, Mohammed Younis Hussein, as he walked out of his house in the Kandahar city, said Muhammed Qahir Khan, a doctor at a local hospital.
Three other people, including Hussein's driver and a relative were wounded, Khan said.
On Sunday, a blast targeting Americans training Afghan police killed two civilians and wounded another in the western province or Herat, said Noor Khan Nekzad, spokesman for the provincial police chief. No Americans were injured in the attack.
The two civilians killed were riding bicycles nearby at the time of the blast, Nekzad said.
Associated Press writer Fisnik Abrashi in Kabul contributed to this report.