- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 4, 2002

An anti-aircraft weapon fired at U.S. aircraft this week in Uruzgan province was stationed in a civilian area, which could explain why an AC-130 gunship that attacked those targets this week is thought to have killed or wounded scores of Afghans by mistake.
A spokesman for the joint U.S.-Afghan team investigating the incident said an anti-aircraft gun fired at U.S. aircraft from inside a walled compound in the village of Kakarak, Afghanistan.
It was in the village that locals say a wedding party was under way, complete with celebratory gunfire that may have prompted the AC-130 attack.
"For 48 hours our guys were watching them fire," Maj. Gary Tallman told the Associated Press in Kakarak. He said the anti-aircraft gunners were coordinating with other batteries in the region. "These guns were talking with each other," he said.
The Afghan government says 44 civilians were killed around the time an Air Force AC-130 gunship directed cannon fire at six anti-aircraft artillery positions. Guns mixed among hamlets loyal to the ousted Taliban regime in the mountainous area north of Kandahar could explain why AC-130 rounds hit civilians.
"It is not unusual for the al Qaeda or the Taliban to place weapons and ammunition and fighters in areas where civilians are living, around schools, areas like that," Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke told reporters at the Pentagon. "That is not unusual."
U.S. military investigators issued what Mrs. Clarke later called a "very preliminary report" based on a two-hour visit to Deh Rawud, accompanied by two Afghan government ministers, several tribal elders and an embassy staffer.
"They saw some evidence of damage, but there was no determination of what caused the damage," Mrs. Clarke said. "They did see some blood they did not see any bodies or any graves."
The bride and groom were thought to have died in the raid, but the groom showed up yesterday to meet the U.S. investigators, according to U.S.armed forces magazine Stars and Stripes.
The groom, identified as Malick, told a reporter that he and his fiancee were due to be married the following day, and they had been in a different village when the planes struck.
He said he came back to find 25 family members dead, including his father and several brothers and sisters.
"I saw bodies flying like straws," said Haleema, an old woman brought to a hospital in Kandahar. "I had to jump over six bodies to escape."
According to the Stars and Stripes report, the U.S. investigators seemed skeptical, making remarks like "There should be more blood" and "Where are the bodies?"
Villagers said they had buried the bodies immediately, in accord with Muslim tradition.
Three days after the air operation, the Pentagon still could not say yesterday whether it was the AC-130's sweeping gun volleys that killed and wounded civilians. The Pentagon says it cannot confirm casualty figures.
Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs, said 21 civilians were being treated for wounds at hospitals in Kandahar and at the U.S. air base at Baghram, north of Kabul.
The Pentagon slowly has released details about operations at the time the AC-130 attacked the sites.
On Tuesday, spokesmen said a force of about 400 Afghans, and U.S. and coalition special operations troops, were patrolling the area when the air strikes occurred.
Gen. Newbold said yesterday that the teams had been operating for several weeks and had engaged in a series of firefights. He said the units had inflicted casualties on the enemy and taken some as prisoners. There were no clashes the night of the AC-130 strikes, but ground controllers were operating and had pointed out the location of some anti-aircraft sites.
"This is an area of enormous sympathy for the Taliban and al Qaeda," Gen. Newbold said. "Our personnel observed them firing before these [AC-130s] engaged."
Local Afghans say the gunship fired at wedding celebrants in Kakarak who followed the Pashtun custom of firing guns in the air. Some Afghans routinely carry and fire substantial weapons, including anti-aircraft artillery and rocket launchers.
But Gen. Newbold cast doubt on the celebratory fire theory. "There is a difference between firing that goes in celebration and clearly directed fire of a different caliber, different mix of munitions," he said. "And that's apparent to our crews."
He said that every time U.S. aircraft flew over the area recently, it encountered anti-aircraft fire.
A B-52 bomber also participated in the attack, dropping seven bombs on caves where the enemy had set up military encampments. One of the satellite-guided bombs flew astray but fell harmlessly on a hillside, the Pentagon said.
The operation in Uruzgan province is part of a larger search-and-destroy mission being carried out in other regions of Afghanistan, particularly in the eastern part of the country, as well as in Pakistan. Uruzgan is a hotbed of Taliban support and may harbor ousted Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. He and al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden have so far eluded an intensive U.S. manhunt.
Mulllah Omar was born near the province's village of Deh Rawud, where on Monday U.S. troops found a huge cache of Taliban weapons and ammunition, including anti-aircraft weapons.
"We've always said that as things went along in Afghanistan, it likely would become harder," Mrs. Clarke said. "It would become harder because you're going against the remaining pockets. It's very hard to find them."
Gen. Newbold added: "While we've defeated the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, we haven't destroyed them."
Tuesday night, the White House issued a statement of condolence. "On behalf of the America people, the president extends his deep condolences for the loss of innocent life no matter what the cause is determined to be," it said. "In the meantime, we are consulting with Afghan authorities on the humanitarian needs of the people in that area."

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