Bomb strays

Afghans killed

U.S. jet hit wedding party, killing 40 and wounding scores, residents say

American officials join probe

Pentagon says deaths may have been caused by enemy artillery fire

July 02, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - A 2,000- pound bomb dropped from an Air Force B-52 strayed off course during an attack yesterday in southern Afghanistan, U.S. military officials said, and there were reports that scores of civilians had been killed or injured in the area.

Residents in Oruzgun province said at least 40 members of a wedding party were killed and about 70 wounded by the bomb, according to reports from news organizations. But Pentagon officials could neither confirm the casualty figures nor whether they resulted from the U.S. bomb or from hostile artillery fire aimed at coalition aircraft.

"We are aware of the reports of civilian casualties," said Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. "It is unclear at this point if those civilian casualties were the result of our errant bomb or if they were the result of anti-aircraft artillery."

In either case, if the estimates prove accurate, the episode would be one of the worst instances of civilian casualties in the nine-month war in Afghanistan.

If a U.S. bomb is found to be responsible, it could strain relations with the new government in Kabul.

At least four Afghan civilians were flown by U.S. helicopters to the allied air base at Kandahar for treatment, Pentagon officials said.

A spokesman for the Central Command in Tampa, Fla., Col. Ray Shepherd, said a team of U.S. and Afghan military and diplomatic officials had been dispatched to the site of the attack, near the village of Kakarak, in a rugged area 105 miles northeast of Kandahar, to try to make sense of what officials said was a confusing situation.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, told the Bakhtar Information Agency, "We are trying to organize aid, and a commission has gone there, headed by the Ministry of Frontier Affairs."

Conflicting reports

Details about the episode were sketchy and to some extent conflicting.

But U.S. military officials and reports from civilians on the ground provided a general outline of what occurred.

Around midnight Sunday, a group of U.S. soldiers, Special Operations troops, Afghan forces and other coalition soldiers on a reconnaissance mission came under fire, presumably from Taliban or al-Qaida fighters.

The region has been a sanctuary for some of the last remaining pockets of enemy fighters in Afghanistan.

A forward air controller with the reconnaissance mission requested close-air support, and an Air Force AC-130 gunship, armed with cannons and heavy machine guns, responded. As the slow-moving gunship droned overhead, laying down a withering field of fire, the aircraft was fired upon by enemy anti-aircraft artillery on the ground.

At the time the firefight was unfolding, a B-52 was flying in the vicinity on a separate mission to bomb caves and bunkers suspected of harboring Taliban or al-Qaida fighters, or their weapons caches. The American heavy bombers have been a mainstay in the war in Afghanistan, but have seen little action since the battle in the Shah-e-Kot valley in March.

The B-52 dropped seven 2,000-pound, satellite-guided bombs.

One of them went astray, but U.S. military officials said they do not know where it landed.

It was unclear last night whether the bomber dropped its payload on its pre-assigned targets or whether it had been redirected to attack the anti-aircraft artillery, using coordinates supplied by the spotter.

Flying above 30,000 feet, the B-52 would not have been threatened by the artillery fire.

The bombing occurred about 1 a.m. in a rugged region, residents told the local Pashtu service of the British Broadcasting Corp.

"There was no one to help last night," one resident, Abdul Saboor, told the BBC. "We managed to transfer some of the wounded to Kandahar in the morning. Some of the foreigners' choppers also came to help. There are no Taliban or al-Qaida or Arabs here. These people were all civilians, women and children."

Other incidents

These reports by the residents in southern Afghanistan were the latest in a series of incidents in which several Western troops and dozens of Afghan civilians have been reported killed by U.S. fire.

Last month, a military investigation found that an F-16 pilot mistakenly dropped a 500- pound bomb on Canadian soldiers conducting a night live-fire exercise in Afghanistan in April because he did not take time to assess the threat properly before striking. Four Canadian soldiers died and eight were wounded.

In May, the Pentagon rejected reports that U.S. forces had mistakenly attacked a wedding party. The Afghan Islamic Press reported that U.S. warplanes had pounded the village of Bul Khil in Khost province after mistaking traditional firing at a wedding for an attack.

U.S. commanders at the sprawling Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, have complained that Taliban sympathizers have orchestrated elaborate "information warfare" campaigns, aimed at discrediting U.S.-led operations with sorrowful accounts of civilian deaths at the hands of bungling, trigger-happy allied troops.

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