- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 6, 2003

From combined dispatches

KABUL, Afghanistan — Nine children were killed in a U.S. air attack on a suspected terrorist in southeast Afghanistan yesterday as American forces worked to eradicate elements attacking the countryside, the U.S. military said.

“Following the attack, coalition ground forces searching the area found the bodies of both the intended target and those of nine children nearby,” the U.S. military said in a statement early today from the coalition’s Bagram Air Base headquarters north of Kabul.

Coalition aircraft opened fire on the suspect — believed to be responsible for recently killing two contractors — at about 10:30 a.m. yesterday south of the town of Ghazni, 80 miles southwest of the capital.

South and southeast Afghanistan have borne the brunt of a rise in violence blamed on resurgent Taliban forces and their allies who have increasingly targeted aid workers as well as U.S. and Afghan troops.

“Coalition forces acted after developing extensive intelligence over an extended period of time that determined the known terrorist was at the isolated rural site,” the military said.

The coalition said a commission was being set up to investigate the deaths and said its forces “follow stringent rules of engagement to specifically avoid this type of incident while continuing to target terrorists” in Afghanistan.

“Coalition forces regret the loss of any innocent life,” it said, adding that U.S.-led troops would “make every effort to assist the families of the innocent casualties and determine the cause of the civilian deaths.”

In the southern city of Kandahar, a bomb exploded in a crowded marketplace, wounding at least 18 people in an attack President Hamid Karzai called a “terrorist” attempt to disrupt a key constitutional assembly.

Police blamed the Taliban or allied Islamic militants fighting the U.S.-backed government for the blast, which shattered windows in a hotel.

A Reuters reporter saw 18 wounded persons in the hospital.

A spokesman for the hard-line Islamic Taliban that used to rule Afghanistan denied responsibility, saying: “Taliban do not attack civilian targets.”

Mr. Karzai said the blast was meant to disrupt elections for a Grand Assembly, or Loya Jirga, due to meet this month in Kabul to approve a new constitution to allow for a presidential election in June.

“They want to frighten people and disrupt the election process,” he said in a statement.

Victims, all male Afghan shopkeepers or bystanders, were seen bleeding on the street in Kandahar’s main market, which was crowded with people at the time. Afghan and U.S. troops quickly cordoned off the area.

Taliban spokesman Mullah Abdul Samad denied responsibility but reiterated a warning from the Taliban leadership council on Friday that anyone attending the Loya Jirga deserved to be killed.

“We do not differentiate between the people who will attend Loya Jirga and the Americans,” he told Reuters by telephone.

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