Bush tells Karzai of regret over killings

While not apologizing, president sympathizes over accidental deaths


KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine - President Bush called President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan yesterday to express his sympathies over what the White House called the "tragedy" of a U.S. bombing raid on a string of southern Afghan villages that residents say killed 40 civilians and injured 100.

Bush's words, while not an apology, were the strongest and most formal expression of regret yet from the United States about the episode Monday, one of the worst involving civilian casualties in the nine-month U.S. military mission in Afghanistan.

The call to Karzai was placed by Bush from the White House about 9 a.m., before he left for a three-day weekend to celebrate his 56th birthday in this longtime Bush family resort. Claire Buchan, a White House spokeswoman, said the call lasted about five minutes.

Buchan said Bush called "to express his sympathies to those whose loved ones lost their lives," and "he certainly did express the tragedy of the situation."

Buchan also said Bush and Karzai discussed a joint American-Afghan fact-finding mission that is under way to determine the cause of the bombing. She said both leaders "recommitted to their mutual efforts to fight terrorism."

White House officials declined to discuss Karzai's reaction.

The attack has enraged Afghan officials, who until now had been willing to accept some civilian casualties as the price of ridding their nation of the Taliban and al-Qaida.

On Tuesday, Karzai went so far as to summon the commander of allied forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Dan K. McNeill, to his office to explain the attack.

His sharp reaction, Afghan officials said, showed his concern that such attacks could turn the population against him and his American allies.

U.S. military officials in Afghanistan, acknowledging that an American AC-130 was in the sky, said it was aiming its guns at known anti-aircraft emplacements in six locations in the area.

American officials said the crew of the plane attacked the locations after its crew reported that it had been fired upon by anti-aircraft weapons.

The Pentagon has refused to say whether the AC-130 was responsible for the casualties while the joint U.S. and Afghan inquiry into the incident is under way.

Until now, the only reaction from Bush had been a statement issued Tuesday by the White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer, expressing the president's "deep condolences for the loss of innocent life no matter what the cause is determined to be." Secretary of State Donald H. Rumsfeld also said Tuesday that he regretted the loss of life, describing it as a "tragedy."

But neither he nor the president has in any way criticized the U.S. military, nor moved to assign any blame for the attack until the inquiry is complete, which could be as early as today.

Afghan officials say that bombs hit four villages in the area, with each suffering casualties, but that the bulk of the dead were in the village of Kakrak, where a wedding party was under way.

Villagers from Kakrak, as well as Afghan officials, said Thursday that it was an American AC-130 plane that attacked their village in the early hours of July 1, at two compounds where the wedding party was taking place.

As is the custom, villagers say, children in the compounds were setting off firecrackers and men were firing automatic rifles into the air in celebration.

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