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KABUL, Afghanistan -- Two U.S. service members were killed and two others injured when their vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan, the U.S. military said in a statement Saturday.

They were the first U.S. military fatalities in Afghanistan this year.

The victims were in a U.S. military vehicle that struck a roadside bomb in Kandahar province, where they had been conducting operations as part of the U.S.-led NATO mission known as Resolute Support, according to the statement.

A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, claimed responsibility for the attack.

The identities of the two service members were withheld pending notification of the next of kin. It was not clear which branch of the military they were from.

Ataullah Ata, a member of the Kandahar provincial council, said the attack occurred in the Dand district and destroyed the American vehicle.

Ata said U.S. forces based at Kandahar air base regularly patrol nearby villages, including in the Dand district. He said the scene of Saturday's attack had been cordoned off by American forces, and no more details were available.

More than 2,400 U.S. service members have been killed in Afghanistan. Last year was one of the deadliest for the United States, with 23 American troops killed, even as Washington engaged in peace talks with the Taliban.

The latest attack seemed certain to stall fresh efforts to restart the on-again-off-again peace talks between Washington and the Taliban.

U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has been pressing the insurgents to declare a cease-fire or at least reduce violent attacks. That would give a window in which the U.S. and the Taliban could forge an agreement to withdraw all of America's troops. That agreement also would set out a road map for direct Afghan-to-Afghan talks, mapping out the country's postwar future.

The Taliban leadership decided at the end of December to support a temporary cease-fire to allow for a peace deal to be signed, but they never said when it would go into effect. The final approval required from their leader, Maulvi Hibatullah Akhundzada, was never announced.

On Wednesday, U.S. forces carried out an airstrike in Herat targeting a commander of a Taliban splinter faction that resulted in civilian casualties, according to media reports. A spokesman for the American military command in Kabul confirmed a U.S. airstrike was conducted in that area on that day and described it as "a coordinated defensive airstrike in support of Afghan forces." The spokesman did not provide further details.

A peace agreement with the Taliban would pave the way for the withdrawal of thousands of American troops from Afghanistan, a key campaign promise President Donald Trump wants to keep. But the president and his commanders do not want it to appear as though they were being pushed out of Afghanistan by the Taliban or any other foe after 18 years of war.

The Taliban now control or hold sway over roughly half of Afghanistan. The militants continue to stage near-daily attacks targeting Afghan and U.S. forces, even as they hold peace talks with the U.S. Scores of Afghan civilians are killed in the crossfire or by roadside bombs planted by militants.

In November, two U.S. service members were killed when their helicopter crashed in eastern Logar province. The U.S. military at the time said preliminary reports did not indicate that it was caused by enemy fire, although the Taliban claimed to have shot down the helicopter -- a claim the U.S military dismissed as false.

The U.S. currently has about 13,000 troops in Afghanistan. About 5,000 of them are doing counterterrorism missions. The remainder are part of a broader NATO mission to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces.

U.S. Ambassador John Bass left Kabul last week, ending his two-year tenure as America's top diplomat there.

Information for this article was contributed by Rahim Faiez and Kathy Gannon of The Associated Press; by Fahim Abed of The New York Times; and by Sharif Hassan and Susannah George of The Washington Post.

A Section on 01/12/2020

Print Headline: Afghan blast kills 2 U.S. troops

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