Pentagon searches for 7 Afghan military students who fled training bases – report
“During the month of September, seven Afghan students were considered absent without leave (AWOL) during international military student programs,” Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Patrick L. Evans has said, according to the Washington Free Beacon. Later, Evans also confirmed his statement to Fox News.
Three soldiers from Afghanistan have been missing from their bases in different parts of the US since September 17-18, when two states – New Jersey and New York – were struck by two bombings. Both were linked to Ahmad Rahami, a radicalized Afghan-born US citizen.
Two of the missing Afghans had been undergoing training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, and one was at Fort Gordon in Georgia. To be considered AWOL, a student needs to be absent from scheduled training for more than 24 hours.
According to the Beacon, in those cases, their fleeing was coordinated, and the three are being probed for possible connections to Rahami.
However, as an unnamed Army source told the newspaper, officials see no connection between the students disappearing and the timing of the two bombings.
The “initial assessment is that there is no relation and the timing is coincidental,” the source said, while Evans refused to comment on whether the Pentagon has any security concerns.
Besides the three students, there are another four Afghan trainees who also disappeared earlier in September.
Three bases reported missing students over the Labor Day weekend, when two Afghans fled from Fort Benning in Georgia, one from Fort Lee in Virginia, and one from an Army facility in Little Rock, Arkansas, the report said.
At the same time, a defense official told the newspaper that two of the Afghans were located and suggested the two men may have fled the US.
A spokeswoman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement service (ICE) has also told the Washington Free Beacon that authorities have been pursuing the Afghans.
“ICE Homeland Security Investigations is aware of the situation, and is actively working to locate these individuals in coordination with the State Department and the Department of Defense,” Sarah Rodriguez said.
Despite fears of more terrorist acts on US soil, Evans appeared to be defending the international military student program.
“It is important to note that the majority of Afghans who train in the US successfully complete their training and return to their country,” he said. “However, there have been occasions where [military officials] have learned of plans to go AWOL. In some of those cases, those students have been returned immediately to their country.”
Rahami, who previously spent some time in Afghanistan and Pakistan, planted a bomb in a garbage container near a Marine Corps charity run in New Jersey. It went off at around 9:30am. Rahami’s second bomb exploded in Chelsea, an upscale Manhattan neighborhood, injuring nearly 30 people.