WASHINGTON (AFP) - The Pentagon on Friday (April 28) said it was investigating whether two US special operations commandos who were killed in Afghanistan this week had been struck by friendly fire.
Army Ranger sergeants Joshua Rodgers and Cameron Thomas died in a raid overnight Wednesday-Thursday as they helped attack a headquarters compound of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group in eastern Nangarhar province.
"We are investigating the circumstances of the combat deaths of the two Army Rangers in the beginning of what was an intense three-hour firefight," Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis said.
"It is possible the Rangers were struck by friendly fire."
A formal probe was under way to determine whether the bullets came from US, Afghan or militant gunfire. Another US commando was wounded in the raid.
Davis said about 50 US special forces and 40 Afghan commandos had been choppered in to the Mohmand Valley late on Wednesday near the compound used by Abdul Hasib, whom the Pentagon called the ISIS leader in Afghanistan.
That local militant group is affiliated with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and the US military calls it Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K.
"Within a few minutes of landing, our combined force came under intense fire from multiple directions and well-prepared fighting positions," US Forces-Afghanistan said in a statement.
"Nevertheless, our forces successfully closed on the enemy, killed several high-level ISIS-K leaders and upwards of 35 fighters."
The compound was located near the tunnel complex where the US military on April 13 unleashed the "Mother Of All Bombs" - a GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast device that the Pentagon said was the biggest non-nuclear weapon it had ever used in combat.
Davis said officials suspected Hasib was killed in Wednesday's raid, but it had not been confirmed.
In a statement, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis paid tribute to the two dead Rangers.
"Fighting alongside their Afghan partners, Josh and Cameron proved themselves willing to go into danger and impose a brutal cost on enemies in their path," Mattis said.
"Our nation owes them an irredeemable debt, and we give our deepest condolences to their families."
The Pentagon estimates that about 1,000 ISIS fighters remain in Afghanistan.
The militants established a foothold there in early 2015 and their numbers now are about half what they were at their peak.
"If confirmed, the death of the emir (Hasib) and his associates will significantly degrade ISIS-K operations in Afghanistan and help reach our goal of destroying them in 2017," US-Forces Afghanistan said.