KABUL, Afghanistan - The U.S. military acknowledged yesterday that six more children have been killed in a bombing raid in operations against suspected Taliban members in eastern Afghanistan.
A military spokesman, Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, said the bodies of the children and two adults were found under a collapsed wall when troops searched the bombed compound east of Gardez. The assault took place Friday but the military acknowledged the deaths only when asked about them at a news conference here yesterday.
The deaths occurred hours before an airstrike on Saturday killed nine children and an adult in a village in southeastern Afghanistan.
The United Nations and the office of President Hamid Karzai expressed renewed concerns about the negative impact such incidents will have on the population. The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have both expressed their regrets for the deaths of the nine children Saturday and promised humanitarian assistance for the village.
The attack Friday was aimed at a heavily armed compound of a known militant, Mullah Jilani, just outside the town of Gardez, 60 miles south of Kabul. Mullah Jilani is suspected of having links to the Taliban, al-Qaida and mujahadeen commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is also on the U.S. list of wanted militants.
The American special forces mounting the assault encountered gunfire from the compound and called in airstrikes.
"We were conducting a night assault on the compound," Hilferty, told journalists at a briefing in Kabul. "We observed a heavy machine gun firing from a compound that we had no indication there were noncombatants in. We fired on the compound from the air and the machine gun stopped."
The next morning American troops searched the compound and found the bodies of six children and two adults under a collapsed wall.
"We don't know what caused the collapse of the wall because although we fired on the compound there were secondary and tertiary explosions inside the compound," he said. He did not identify the two adults who died but said that Mullah Jilani was not found.
Nine suspected militants were captured in the raid and troops also found dozens of weapons, including artillery pieces, machine guns and rockets. The military released photographs of the large cache of weapons.
The spokesman said U.S. rules of engagement were stringent, shown by the fact they had not fired on 10 people seen leaving the compound because they could not be identified as combatants.
"We try very hard not to kill anyone," he said. "We would prefer to capture the terrorists rather than kill them. But in this incident, if noncombatants surround themselves with thousands of weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammunition and howitzers and mortars in a compound known to be used by a terrorist, we are not completely responsible for the consequences."
Asadullah Wafa, the governor of Paktia province where the raid took place, confirmed the deaths of the children in a telephone interview from Gardez. He said they were the family of an associate of Mullah Jilani who were living in the compound.
Presidential spokesman Hamid Elmi said he had no independent confirmation of the incident but expressed deep concern at the news. "It is a very serious issue for the government," he said. Karzai had ordered a government delegation headed by two ministers to investigate the scene of Saturday's airstrike, a sign of his profound concern about the consequences of such civilian casualties, he said.
Hundreds of delegates have been arriving here this week for the constitutional grand council, which is convening to approve a new constitution for the country. U.S. and Afghan officials say they have received specific intelligence that the Taliban and Hekmatyar intend to disrupt the proceedings.
In an effort to pre-empt any serious attacks, U.S. forces launched Operation Avalanche, their biggest combat operation across the country, to throw the Taliban and other groups on the defensive. About 2,000 troops have been deployed across the south, southeast and east of the country on different tasks. Both airstrikes on the children were part of those operations.
A U.N. spokesman, Manoel de Almeida e Silva, expressed "regret and concern" at the latest incident.
"In addition to contributing to a sense of fear and insecurity, these kinds of incidents make it easier for those who wish to spoil the peace process to rally support," he said.