Sat, Sep 09, 2006 - Page 7 News List

New details fail to locate missing major

NO READY EXPLANATION Cellphone records detail a US officer's last calls, but it is still not clear whether she was the victim of a crime, fell ill or simply just went AWOL

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , MOSCOW

Baffling new details surfaced on Thursday in the search for a missing US Air Force officer in Kyrgyzstan, but the efforts to find the officer continued without a major break in the case, US and Kyrgyz officials said.

The officer, Major Jill Metzger, the personnel chief of the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing, disappeared on Tuesday afternoon after she had gone shopping in a department store in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital.

Metzger was at the end her tour at Manas Air Base, which supports military operations in Afghanistan. She was due to return to the US this week, Kyrgyz officials have said.

Her disappearance has defied ready explanation. It was not clear whether the major was the victim of a crime, fell ill or left of her own will. She was an accomplished marathon runner, and the Air Force has described her as being in excellent athletic condition.

Searches of local hospitals found no sign of Metzger, and Murat Sutalinov, the interior minister in Kyrgyzstan, announced on Thursday that kidnapping had been ruled out, news agencies and local news media reported.

Other than Sutalinov's assertion that no one had demanded a ransom, the basis for his announcement was not clear.

The Air Force publicly disagreed with him, saying that all lines of the investigation remained open.

"Nothing has been ruled out," said Captain Anna Carpenter, a spokeswoman for the air base, where roughly 1,000 US military personnel are stationed.

The Bishkek police department also said that it had not excluded abduction.

"We are working all versions," said Aigul Davletbayeva, a department spokeswoman.

The few details released by law enforcement officials provided little insight and some contradicted official statements.

Metzger went to the store on Tuesday with several co-workers who had agreed to meet at a certain time to return to Manas Air Base. When she did not appear with the others, the search began.

Davletbayeva said that further examination of the store's security video showed Metzger walking briskly out of the store alone late on Tuesday afternoon. Witnesses have told the police that the major, wearing civilian clothes, stopped a taxi or a private car, she added.

Nurdin Jangarayev, a spokesman for the Kyrgyzstan Interior Ministry, said federal investigators also had heard that she had entered a car, which took her to a bus station.

"They are looking for this car," he said.

Sutalinov said other witnesses reported seeing the major talking on a public phone at the bus station, local news media reported.

The ministry has previously said that cellphone records show that Metzger made calls to a former Soviet farm in the afternoon before disappearing and that her phone was called twice in the evening before being shut off.

It said one of the calls was made when the phone was near the city's eastern bus station.

The city police said that their review of the phone records had indicated that Metzger had called the bus station and a residential district in Bishkek.

It was not clear whether the two police agencies were discussing the same calls and why their statements differed. It was also not clear whom the major might have called. Carpenter said that the major did not speak Russian, Kyrgyz or Uzbek, the predominant local languages.

Members of the military stationed in Kyrgyzstan had been allowed to leave the base on unofficial business only with permission and in groups.

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