- The Washington Times - Friday, October 12, 2001

Afghan civilians became a propaganda tool yesterday in the Taliban militia's desperate bid to rally Muslim and Arab nations against the United States and its anti-terror campaign.
The Taliban, virtually isolated by the world, accused U.S. forces of targeting civilians, insisting that as many as 300 have been killed during five days of air strikes. The United States rejected that assertion as false and "totally baseless."
The Bush administration said it regrets any loss of innocent lives, and blamed the Taliban for spreading "nasty rumors" that the United States first "drops food and then bombs people" or that the food was poisoned.
A daytime raid on Kabul, the Afghan capital, caught residents, used to strikes after dark, by surprise yesterday.
The Taliban, which has been trying to convince other Arab and Muslim countries that the U.S.-led war is against all of them, said dozens had died nationwide in the past 24 hours, giving various estimates of casualties, and charged that a mosque near Jalalabad also had been hit.
One report said a 10-year-old son of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar was killed by a bomb earlier this week.
"More than 77 civilians have been martyred in different forms in our country and the number is increasing with the passage of time," the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said at a press conference in Islamabad, Pakistan.
"This is at a time when the Pentagon is lying to the world that it is not targeting civilians," he said.
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld dismissed the accusation, but acknowledged that, as in any military conflict, there will be "unintended loss of life," which Washington regrets.
"It comes with ill grace for the Taliban to be suggesting that we are doing what they have made a practice and a livelihood out of," he told reporters outside the Pentagon.
More than 5,000 American civilians were killed in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Mr. Rumsfeld said the United States is doing its best to minimize civilian casualties, but the munitions it is using are not 100 percent precise.
"Everyone here knows that an automobile doesn't work 100 percent of the time the way one would want it, nor does any other piece of equipment, including equipment that's managed by the Department of Defense," he said.
At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher said "any assertions that we are deliberately targeting civilians are totally baseless."
He accused the Taliban of spreading "very nasty and very untrue rumors." Asked by reporters how the State Department had learned about those rumors, he responded: "I think we hear them from people who have been in touch with people in Afghanistan. I'm not sure I've seen any of them in the press.
"I know there have been all kinds of rumors circulating in Afghanistan, perhaps some of them exaggerated by the Taliban. One was that we drop food and then bomb people afterwards that's totally false. One was that the food was somehow poisoned that's totally false."
Several reports surfaced yesterday saying civilians have been killed by U.S. and British air strikes since they began Sunday. In addition to Mr. Zaeef's figure, another Taliban official was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that at least 115 persons had died over the past day. Yet another, quoted by Agence France-Press (AFP), put the toll at 200.
A witness told AFP that a bomb, dropped during a U.S. raid on Kabul's airport yesterday, had hit a nearby village, destroying several houses and killing a 12-year-old child. Another report said 15 persons were killed when a missile struck a mosque in the northeastern city of Jalalabad.
Only four civilian deaths have been independently confirmed so far those of four Afghans in Kabul working for a U.N. mine-clearance program. Journalists are banned from traveling around the country.
U.S. officials suggested yesterday that the Taliban is using the reports as a propaganda tool to influence both its own people and other nations in the Muslim world.
The Organization of the Islamic Conference, during an emergency meeting of its 56 members Wednesday, warned against inflicting civilian casualties but avoided condemning the air strikes on Afghanistan. Arab allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia had earlier stressed the importance of avoiding civilian casualties.
During the 1999 Kosovo conflict, Serbia was believed to have exaggerated the civilian death toll for the same reasons. The collateral damage was then attributed to NATO's high-altitude air strikes from 15,000 feet.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned yesterday that the West was in danger of losing the propaganda battle for Arab and Muslim support.
Mr. Blair's diplomatic efforts during a shuttle through the Middle East suffered a setback when a Saudi newspaper reported that Saudi Arabia had asked him to cancel a planned visit to the kingdom.
British officials acknowledged having "discussions" about adding Saudi Arabia to the two-day trip, which included stops in Oman and Egypt, but said Mr. Blair and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah had scheduling problems.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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