- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 3, 2002

A joint U.S.-Afghan team arrived in Uruzgan province yesterday to investigate the reports of deaths of scores of Afghan civilians, as initial evidence indicated something other than an errant B-52 bomb caused the casualties.
The focus shifted to an AC-130 gunship, a weapon that supports ground troops by laying down streams of cannon and machine-gun fire. The Pentagon said an AC-130 unleashed rounds on six locations in a several-mile-long area early Monday after its crew and ground controllers believed it was being fired on from below.
The friendly Afghan government of Hamid Karzai already has concluded that American fire killed perhaps 40 civilians, some at a wedding party in the village of Kakarak, north of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. At least one official harshly criticized the United States.
"It is understandable that there are possible civilian casualties in military operations, but an incident with such magnitude and such casualties under such conditions is by no means justifiable," Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah said at a news conference in Kabul.
Agence France-Presse quoted Mr. Abdullah as saying four villages in the rugged mountainous area north of Kandahar were hit by shells and bombs for 15 minutes.
But at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld cautioned reporters not to draw conclusions until more facts come in. He said the military had not yet confirmed Afghan casualty estimates or how the incident happened.
"I just don't know the facts," Mr. Rumsfeld said, adding, "The commander on the ground has expressed regret for any innocent loss of life."
He said it could take another day or two before the investigative team determines what happened.
American soldiers treated four Afghan children at the scene and took them to a hospital at Bagram air base. Other wounded civilians are being treated at a hospital in Kandahar.
More details did emerge yesterday about a substantial U.S.-led ground and air operation that was under way Sunday and Monday in Uruzgan, a province friendly to the ousted Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.
Mullah Omar, like terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, has so far eluded an intensive American manhunt. He is presumed to be organizing a guerrilla war against the Karzai government.
About 400 ground troops, a mix of mostly Afghan soldiers and coalition special operations forces, were conducting reconnaissance patrols for bin Laden's al Qaeda army and for hard-core Taliban fighters.
At some point, a B-52 began dropping satellite-guided, 2,000-pound bombs on cave complexes. One of the seven bombs went astray. But a ground controller witnessed the munition falling harmlessly on a hillside, seeming to disprove initial reports that a bomb caused the casualties.
Around this time, a ground controller spotted anti-aircraft fire aimed at the AC-130 Spectre gunship, whose crews operate two cannons and machine guns. The aircraft returned what they considered hostile fire across an area of several miles.
"It had been responding to a forward air controller on the ground who had been directing fires against anti-aircraft weapons that had been firing up at the AC-130," Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters.
Col. Roger King, spokesman for U.S. military headquarters at Bagram air base, north of Kabul, said the ground fire was inconsistent with what locals reported as the celebratory small-arms fire of a wedding party, as is Pashtun custom.
"Normally when you think of celebratory fire, which is something that is not necessarily uncommon, it's random, it's sprayed, it's not directed at a specific target," Col. King told reporters. "In this instance, the people on board the aircraft felt that the weapons were tracking them and were making a sustained effort to engage them."
Lt. Gen. Dan K. McNeill, who commands the 7,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, met yesterday with Mr. Karzai.
The general suggested he views the incident differently than the Afghan government does.
"It is not part of the parameters of this coalition to attack innocents," the Associated Press quoted him as saying. "In this fight against terrorism, the only people who have a track record of attacking innocents are the terrorists themselves."
Gen. Pace said the coalition patrol went to the area based on recent intelligence reports of enemy activity.
"I can tell you that this is an area that is known to have in the past been the home of Taliban and al Qaeda and that we had intelligence that indicated it would be worthwhile to go back and revisit," he said.
Mr. Rumsfeld stuck by previous statements that the Afghanistan campaign marks the most accurate bombing campaign in history. Still, he said, mistakes happen in wars.
"It's going to happen," he said. "It always has, and I'm afraid it always will. And the task for all of us is to see that it is as limited as possible and to make darned sure when something happens like what just took place, that we don't presume to think we know about it until we have completed some sort of an investigation, which we have not."
Mr. Karzai also told reporters he had a message for the Afghan people.
"We ask people to not fire guns while celebrating weddings in order to avoid occurrence of misunderstanding and unpleasant incidents in future," the Afghan leader said.

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