U.N. official calls on U.S. for swift probe of strike

9 Afghan children killed

target's fate is disputed

December 08, 2003|By Hamida Ghafour and Jonathan Peterson | Hamida Ghafour and Jonathan Peterson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

KABUL, Afghanistan - The top United Nations official in Afghanistan called yesterday for a swift investigation into a U.S. airstrike that left nine Afghan children dead, saying such attacks would increase Afghans' feeling of insecurity and fear.

In a statement, the U.S. military said yesterday that it regretted the deaths and was conducting an investigation into the bombing Saturday that targeted someone an Army spokesman called a known terrorist.

Ground forces that checked the scene of the airstrike later discovered the bodies of nine children near the dead terrorism suspect, the military said. But Afghans contended that the Taliban militant targeted by U.S. forces had escaped.

"This incident, which follows similar incidents, adds to the sense of insecurity and fear in the country," Lakdhar Brahimi, the U.N. special representative to Afghanistan, said in a statement.

He urged the military to make public the results of its investigation, adding: "The protection of civilians is an obligation that must be observed by all."

The children were playing in the walled compound of their home early Saturday morning when an A-10 Warthog aircraft bombed the rural village of Hutala, in the province of Ghazni, 80 miles southeast of the Afghan capital.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said the intended target, former local Taliban commander Mullah Wazir, was killed in the attack, a claim that Afghan officials and residents disputed.

A U.S. military spokesman at Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, said Wazir's body had been found near the site of the attack. He is believed to be responsible for the recent killing of two foreign workers building the Kandahar-to-Kabul highway.

However, a spokesman for the governor of Ghazni said the airstrike missed Wazir.

"The Americans wanted to bomb Mullah Wazir, but they bombed a different house," Jawaid Khan said. "The people there are very afraid. They have no idea why the Americans bombed their village."

Khalilzad said he was "deeply saddened" by the "tragic loss of innocent life" and had spoken to Afghan President Hamid Karzai about the attack. A senior U.S. military officer and Afghan officials were meeting yesterday with the bereaved families in Hutala, he said.

A commission was being set up to investigate the deaths, U.S. Army Maj. Christopher E. West said at Bagram Air Base. He said U.S. troops had collected "extensive intelligence" on Wazir's whereabouts in the village.

"At the time we initiated the attack, we did not know there were children nearby," he said in a statement.

A statement released yesterday by U.S. Central Command noted that "coalition forces follow stringent rules of engagement to specifically avoid this type of incident while continuing to target terrorists who threaten the future of Afghanistan."

One analyst said yesterday that such tragedies underscore the dilemma of U.S. forces that are trying to present the United States as a humanitarian nation but that also do not want to let enemies escape.

"The hard part isn't getting insurgents," said Loren Thompson, an expert on military strategy and technology at the Lexington Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Arlington, Va., that focuses on national security. "The hard part is maintaining your humanity as you do it."

U.S. foes in Afghanistan and Iraq are trying to exploit the fact that civilian casualties harm the image of the United States with local residents, he said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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