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BAGHDAD - Seven US troops were wounded in search operations for the two US soldiers who went missing south of Baghdad as an Al-Qaeda-led insurgent group in Iraq claimed their abductions Monday.

"Seven US service members have been wounded in action during these search operations since Friday night," coalition forces spokesman Major General William Caldwell said in a statement.

More than "8,000 US military, Iraqi army and police are working together, conducting an intensive search operation to determine the status of these soldiers," Caldwell said.

"We are using every means at our disposal."

The soldiers went missing after they came under attack at a traffic control point near the predominantly Sunni Arab town of Yusifiyah, south of Baghdad on Friday. Another soldier died in the attack.

The agricultural area, criss-crossed by a maze of canals and lush fields, is a well-known insurgent stronghold.

A coalition of armed Sunni Arab factions led by Al-Qaeda's Iraq branch claimed responsibility for the abduction of the two soldiers in a statement posted on the Internet Monday.

"Your brethren in the military wing of the Mujahedeen Shura (consultative) Council abducted the two American soldiers near Yusifiyah," the council, which groups eight insurgent factions, said in the statement whose authenticity could not be verified.

The US military named the missing soldiers as Kristian Menchaca, 23, and Thomas L. Tucker, 25.

The claim followed the death of Al-Qaeda's Iraq frontman Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a US air raid on June 7 which the militant network vowed to avenge.

The Mujahedeen Shura Council said the abduction was but "the latest incident showing the weakness of the so-called US intelligence services and their confusion in Iraq."

It also scoffed at "the army of the most powerful country in the world" for returning empty-handed and "shamed" after launching a search operation for the missing soldiers.

But the group did not explain the circumstances of the purported abduction, saying details would be released "in the coming days."

Caldwell said troops carried a series of operations during their search mission in the area.

"Three anti-Iraqi forces were killed in action, 34 detainees taken into custody, 63 tips received, to include 12 cordon and search operations based on actionable intelligence and eight air assault operations," he said.

"We have surged intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms and employed planes, boats, helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles to ensure the most thorough search possible on the ground, in the air and in the water."

He said around 12 villages had been cleared in the area.

"We are using all available assets, coalition and Iraqi, to find our soldiers and will not stop looking until we find them. We will never stop looking for our service members until their status is definitively determined," Caldwell added.

One other US soldier, Sergeant Keith "Matt" Maupin, remains listed as missing in action in Iraq. Maupin was captured on April 9, 2004 after his convoy was ambushed by insurgents west of Baghdad.

The Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera aired a video a week later that showed the American seated on the floor surrounded by masked gunmen.

A month later it aired what it said was the execution of an American soldier, but the images were unclear and the army said it was inconclusive.

06/19/2006 15:30 GMT

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