An al-Qaida-linked group said Monday it was holding captive two U.S. privates, one from Texas and the other from Oregon, who went missing last week in one of Iraq's most dangerous regions.
The militants also taunted the U.S. military for failing to find the soldiers despite a search involving more than 8,000 Iraqi and American troops in a region south of Baghdad that is known as the "Triangle of Death."
The group the Mujahedeen Shura Council also said it was responsible for the June 3 kidnapping of four Russian Embassy workers, in another sign of the insurgents' determination to hit back after the killing of al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
The two postings could not be authenticated, but they appeared on a Web site known for publishing messages from insurgent groups in Iraq. They did not include any pictures or identification cards for the American soldiers or the four Russians.
Besides the troops, the U.S. military said Monday it had thrown fighter jets, helicopters, unmanned drones, boats and dive teams into the search for the soldiers.
Residents said the U.S. military slapped a 3 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew in the area and were conducting house-to-house raids, arresting anyone found not to be a permanent resident. They said U.S. and Iraqi soldiers were demanding to see each family's food ration card, which lists the number of beneficiaries, so as to single out outsiders.
The two soldiers disappeared in an attack on their traffic checkpoint last Friday that left one of their comrades dead.
The area is among the most dangerous in Iraq for U.S. troops and mostly populated by minority Sunni Arabs, the backbone of Iraq's three-year-old insurgency.
Military spokesman U.S. Maj. Gen. William Caldwell did not comment on reports that the two men had been seized by insurgents, saying only that they were listed as "duty status and whereabouts unknown."
He said troops searching for the soldiers killed three suspected insurgents and detained 34 in fighting that also left seven U.S. servicemen wounded, reports AP.