- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 5, 2005

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan government sharply criticized the U.S. military in a rare rebuff yesterday for killing up to 17 civilians in an air strike and ordered an immediate inquiry.

The U.S. military said the air strike in eastern Afghanistan was carried out on a known terrorist base, but leaders in Kabul said the deaths of the civilians, including women and children, could not be justified.

It marked unusual criticism from the government of President Hamid Karzai, often viewed by critics as an American puppet. The United States provides security for the president as well as hundreds of millions of dollars a year in aid to Afghanistan.

The reprimand also highlighted the Afghan government’s concern that deadly mistakes could erode public support for the U.S. presence here. In the past, Mr. Karzai has expressed interest in long-term U.S. military presence in the region as Afghanistan struggles to recover from nearly a quarter-century of war.

U.S. forces, meanwhile, spent an eighth day scouring mountains in the Kunar province bordering Pakistan, searching for the final member of an elite four-man Navy SEAL team that went missing June 28.

One SEAL has been rescued, and the bodies of two others were recovered Monday in Kunar and taken to the main U.S. base in Afghanistan, at Bagram, the U.S. military said.

A transport helicopter sent in to rescue the four was shot down the day the team went missing, killing all 16 U.S. servicemen aboard.

U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Jerry O’Hara said rescuers searching for the final team member were “still hopeful,” adding, “until you know otherwise, you have to assume he is alive.”

The U.S. military said the rescued serviceman was receiving treatment for “non-life-threatening injuries” at the Bagram base.

The air strike that killed civilians was carried out Friday on a house in the area where the U.S. helicopter went down. The number of people killed was still not clear, but “roughly half” may have been civilians, while the rest were Taliban or al Qaeda fighters, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said yesterday.

U.S. forces described the house as “a known operating base for terrorist attacks … as well as a base for a medium-level terrorist leader.”

But Jawed Ludin, Mr. Karzai’s chief of staff, said, “There is no way … the killing of civilians can be justified.”

“The president is extremely saddened and disturbed,” he said. “It’s the terrorists we are fighting. It’s not our people who should suffer.”

A government team is on its way to the site to investigate the bombing, the Defense Ministry said. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission said its investigators were there collecting victims’ names.

An initial U.S. air strike destroyed a house, and as villagers gathered to look at the damage, a U.S. warplane dropped a second bomb on the same target, killing 17 persons, including three women and children, Kunar Gov. Asadullah Wafa said.

He said it was not clear who was killed in the initial attack on the tiny village of Chechal.

The U.S. military said the attack “resulted in the deaths of an unknown number of enemy terrorists and noncombatants.”

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