Afghan Officials Decry U.S. Airstrike
Steps Urged to Prevent More Civilian Casualties
By Pamela Constable and Bradley Graham
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 3, 2002; Page A01
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, July 2 -- A U.S. air assault in Uruzgan province early Monday, which local officials said killed 40 civilians and wounded at least 100, today drew the Afghan government's strongest criticism to date of U.S. military operations here.
Saying "stronger measures" and "further explanations" were needed to prevent civilian casualties in the U.S.-led effort to hunt down al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives, Foreign Minister Abdullah said: "This situation has to come to an end. Mistakes can take place . . . but our people should be assured every measure has been taken to avoid such incidents."
Abdullah, speaking in Kabul, the Afghan capital, stressed that the government was not "pulling back" from its support for U.S. anti-terrorist operations in Afghanistan, which began nine months ago.
A government statement said that President Hamid Karzai called on the United States and its allies to "take all necessary measures to ensure that military activities to capture terrorist groups do not harm innocent Afghan civilians."
In Washington, a White House statement said President Bush extended "his deep condolences for the loss of innocent life no matter what the cause is determined to be."
"The Afghan people have played a critical role in our joint war against terrorism," the statement said. "The United States greatly appreciates their support in this vital struggle."
Monday's incident occurred in a remote area where U.S. forces have been searching intensely for remnants of Taliban and al Qaeda forces and where some Afghan officials said they believe Mohammad Omar, the Taliban's leader, may be in hiding. With details of the incident still in dispute, Afghan and U.S. officials traveled to the isolated site, near Deh Rawod village, about 70 miles north of the southern city of Kandahar, to conduct an investigation.
At the Pentagon, defense officials said they no longer believed that an errant 2,000-pound bomb from a U.S. B-52 could have caused the reported casualties. But they held open the possibility that a U.S. gunship, which had fired apparently because the crew believed the plane was under attack, might have been responsible.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said it was too soon to know for certain whether any U.S. forces were to blame and said it would take another day or two to come up with "useful" information.
"I just don't know the facts," he said. "It's really a mistake for us to make judgments about what took place when we know we don't know."
Local officials and survivors of the attack said U.S. warplanes fired on a village for more than two hours after mistaking traditional celebratory gunfire at a rural wedding for groundfire aimed at a U.S. reconnaissance operation. U.S. officials in Washington and at Bagram air base near Kabul, however, said the U.S. planes had come under "sustained" groundfire not consistent with a wedding celebration.
Col. Roger King, a U.S. military spokesman at Bagram, said the plane crews "felt the weapons were tracking them and making a sustained effort to engage them." He said the planes met "sustained, hostile fire" that was unlike the "random, sprayed" shooting traditional at rural weddings here.
Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S. forces in Afghanistan are authorized to fire in self-defense, and in this case, an American forward air controller on the ground reported antiaircraft fire and directed the attacks by an AC-130 gunship in the area. The low-flying Air Force Special Operations plane, used extensively throughout the war in Afghanistan, lays down a field of fire from Gatling guns, side-firing cannons and 105mm howitzers.
Pace said the gunship's crew "believed they were returning fire against antiaircraft weapons."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company