- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 9, 2002

U.S. special operations units were hunting a senior Taliban military leader last week during the operation that led to the accidental deaths of Afghan civilians when an AC-130 gunship fired on anti-aircraft sites.

In this newly disclosed detail of events on July 1, two senior U.S. officials said the Taliban leader had eluded the joint American-Afghan forces for weeks.

The fugitive, who has not been identified, and his men remain at large today somewhere in Uruzgan province, site of the "friendly fire" incident.

Uruzgan is the home province of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, but the sources said the team did not have him in its sights at the time. Omar is believed to move in and out of the province, north of Kandahar.

This knowledge of a top Taliban military officer's presence in Uruzgan helps explain why a large force of 400, backed by U.S. aircraft, stayed on the move in the province for weeks before July 1.

The new information also illustrates the difficulty of operations in post-Taliban Afghanistan, where the targets are often small bands of Taliban or al Qaeda easily hidden amid caves and friendly villages. The U.S. mission is to wipe out these pockets before they can organize and attack the new government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

"There was sufficient intelligence to believe that there were some what we would call 'high-value individuals' that might be operating in the area," Marine Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon yesterday. "We have known from intelligence of multiple sources that there were viable targets in the area, this locale within Uruzgan."

Gen. Newbold declined to identify these 'high-value' people, but two sources said one of them is the unnamed senior Taliban officer.

U.S. intelligence agencies believe Omar remains in the caves and villages of south-central Afghanistan, where strong pockets of sympathy exist for his failed Islamic state.

His top ally and supporter, Osama bin Laden, is believed to be moving among friendly areas of western Pakistan, if he is still alive.

"They never were close associates," said a U.S. official. "They moved their own way after the war started. They have their own areas."

U.S. intelligence has not picked up confirmed intelligence on bin Laden's whereabouts since December. Then, his al Qaeda terrorist network released a video of a thin and stressed-looking bin Laden. His voice was detected by U.S. officials on a short-range radio in Tora Bora that same month, shortly before the al Qaeda stronghold was overrun by U.S. and Afghan troops.

President Bush said yesterday he does not know whether bin Laden, the world's most-wanted man for orchestrating the September 11 attacks, is alive.

"He may be alive," Mr. Bush said at a White House news conference. "If he is, we'll get him. If he's not alive, we got him."

The military acknowledged that civilians died July 1 as the result of nighttime AC-130 cannon fire against anti-aircraft sites stationed amid civilians, including a wedding party in the village of Kakarak.

"We struck people we didn't intend to," Gen. Newbold said.

Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said a team of about 15, headed by an Air Force one-star general, will arrive in Afghanistan this week to begin a formal investigation. A team of U.S. and Afghan officials initially visited the area and filed a report on Saturday with Lt. Gen. Dan O'Neill, who commands some 7,000 American troops in Afghanistan.

Local Afghans say 48 civilians were killed by U.S. fire. The Pentagon says it cannot confirm that number.

"The preliminary team was not shown that many graves," Mrs. Clarke said. "But again, any civilian that is hurt, any civilian that is killed is not acceptable, as far as we're concerned."

As a result of the accident, Gen. O'Neill has decided he needs a larger military presence in the province to aid villages and rebuild trust. He will dispatch humanitarian and civil affairs officers to Uruzgan, as well as some security forces.

Gen. Newbold said that on the night of the attack, small teams of American commandos were working in "concentric rings" as they zeroed in on their Taliban targets.

It was at this point that troops on the ground and the AC-130 were shot at. A spokesman for the preliminary investigative team said some of the anti-aircraft fire came from a battery within Kakarak where the wedding party celebrated.

The investigative team found no artillery piece inside the compound.

"It is a huge area that we're talking about filled with caves, and it is not difficult to hide an [anti-aircraft artillery] weapon," Gen. Newbold said.

Gen. Newbold reaffirmed the Pentagon's position that the Air Force AC-130 crew fired in self-defense. "I don't think there's any question that our aircraft and our forces on the ground were fired at," he said. He added that the enemy volleys were substantial and not merely celebratory small-arms fire from a wedding party, as is the Pashtun tribal custom.

The lumbering gunships operate almost exclusively at night in Afghanistan. Each firing is videotaped by infrared gun cameras that could capture any anti-aircraft volleys. Mrs. Clarke said the Pentagon is considering releasing the tapes.

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