The Pentagon said yesterday that a group of suspected al Qaeda fighters bombed during a recent missile attack in Afghanistan were not civilians looking for scrap metal, contrary to accusations made by local Afghans in news reports.
Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director for operations on the Joint Staff, told reporters that a U.S. military investigative team recovered weapons and ammunition, communications devices and documents at a site of a missile attack by a CIA-operated drone aircraft.
“So the intelligence that was garnered to be able to facilitate the strike, the initial indications afterwards would seem to say that these are not peasant people up there farming,” Adm. Stufflebeem said.
Meanwhile, U.S. Army spokes-man Maj. A.C. Roper said in Kandahar, Afghanistan, that the team of military investigators had collected forensic evidence at the Zawar Kili bombing site.
Adm. Stufflebeem said the team left the area yesterday morning and it will be some time before the team can analyze the material, including human remains, to determine who died at the site.
U.S. officials have said the group included men in Arab clothing who were surrounded by security guards, indicating the presence of al Qaeda leaders and possibly Osama bin Laden.
“There are no initial indications that these were innocent locals, and I base that on the facts that this team, in addition to just looking at the site where the strike occurred, also did some exploration in the surrounding area, to include some caves, a nearby village, and talking to locals,” Adm. Stufflebeem said.
“So I think that that sort of puts us in a comfort zone right now these were not innocents.”
The documents found by a team of about 50 U.S. soldiers included credit-card applications and commercial-airline schedules.
Adm. Stufflebeem said the CIA carried out the drone missile attack outside the control of the U.S. Central Command.
“This was an agency mission,” he said. “This was a case where Central Command was not actively participating or coordinated with this particular strike.”
A U.S. official said a Predator drone aircraft operated remotely from a base in the region fired the Hellfire missile after determining that a group of men and a single vehicle appeared to be al Qaeda fighters.
The Pentagon also has begun an investigation into charges made by released Afghan prisoners that they were mistreated by U.S. soldiers after being captured in a raid two weeks ago.
“In terms of the beatings that had been reported, there is no information that we have heard that would support that that is in fact the case,” Adm. Stufflebeem said.
The admiral said it has become harder to conduct bombing raids in Afghanistan because the Taliban militia has been defeated and al Qaeda has “vanished.”
“It’s a shadow war,” he said. “These are shadowy people who don’t want to be found. And so you’re going after all these reports as to where this individual or where these groups may be and what they may be doing, and so when you get upon it, there’s nothing there.”
In a related development, the government of Kandahar province said yesterday that Afghans will now go with U.S. troops on future operations to avoid a commando raid last month that Afghans say led to the capture and killing of friendly forces.
“To avoid any misguided military operation, we have made it a rule that in any future U.S. operation which is conducted on the basis of local Afghan intelligence, people from Kandahar administration would be included,” Gov. Gul Agha told the Associated Press.
In San’a, Yemen, yesterday, Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in the region, said he does not expect the United States to send combat troops to Yemen in the war against terrorism.
“I don’t think at this time we have any expectation of putting U.S. combat troops here on the ground,” Gen. Franks said. Yemen’s government is interested in U.S. military training and assistance in setting up a coast guard to monitor Yemen’s 1,500-mile coast, he said.
Yesterday, a military transport arrived at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, carrying an additional 34 al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners from Afghanistan, the Pentagon said. The additional prisoners brings to 254 the number of detainees held on the island.