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U.S. Air Attack Kills 4 Civilians at U.N. Office in Kabul

By Edward Cody and Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 9, 2001; 12:15 PM

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Oct. 9—U.S. warplanes mistakenly bombed offices of a land mine removal organization near Kabul early today, killing four guards—the first independently confirmed civilian deaths of the three-day-old anti-terrorism attacks against Afghanistan.

U.N. and other humanitarian aid officials in Islamabad, reporting the deaths, called on the United States to exercise greater care in what President Bush has promised will be a relentless campaign to dismantle Taliban rule in Afghanistan and root out accused terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. “People must distinguish between combatants and innocent people who are not,” said Stephanie Bunker, spokeswoman for the Office of the U.N. Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs in Afghanistan.

Although the number of civilian deaths was relatively small, the bombing was seen as a significant first blunder in the U.S.-led anti-terrorism campaign among aid workers in Islamabad who monitor what is left of their agencies’ activities in neighboring Afghanistan.

First, they said, it undermined the Bush administration’s repeated pledges that U.S. attacks would be precisely aimed to spare the Afghan people further suffering and hit only Taliban government and military infrastructure along with bin Laden’s training camps and headquarters. Second, some aid officials expressed fear that news of the civilian deaths could generate panicky flight from Afghan cities—which so far has not happened on a large scale—and push a wave of refugees up against the Pakistani border.

U.S. warplanes pounded targets in Afghanistan for a third day, meanwhile, striking in daylight for the first time at military targets near the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. More raids were reported around Kandahar again tonight. U.S. officials in Washington said the objectives, as they have been since air strikes began Sunday evening, were mainly command and control centers, airports, communications and air defenses.

There were no reliable reports on damage. Taliban spokesmen have said dozens of people have been killed in the bombing. But the Taliban envoy in Islamabad, Abdul Salem Zaeef, said today that bin Laden and the Taliban leader, Mohammed Omar, have escaped harm.

The U.S. effort to reinforce its humanitarian message with airdrops of food also came under criticism here. Aid officials complained they have no idea where the drops are going—whether they are getting food to the neediest areas or whether they are falling into mined areas that could put refugees at risk as they seek out the dropped packages.

After a decade of warfare between Afghan mujahideen groups and Soviet troops, followed by another decade of fratricidal combat among rival Afghan militias, the country remains strewn with land mines estimated to number between 5 million and 7 million and to cover more than 230 square miles.

A group of aid officials, after a meeting here, expressed their concerns to the U.S. Embassy, sources said. Karim Fazal, who heads the Organization for Mine Clearance and Afghan Rehabilitation, said he voiced similar concerns over the drops in a meeting with David Katz, a U.S. consular official in the Pakistani city of Peshawar.

“The countryside is full of mines,” he told reporters. “A lot of them are not even surveyed, or if they are surveyed, they are not cleared.” Particularly dangerous, he said, is the northeast corner of Afghanistan, where many minefields are unmapped.

The offices mistakenly bombed belonged to Afghan Technical Consultants, one of a number of groups working under the U.N. aegis to survey the country for minefields and remove the deadly explosives from beneath the dirt. The two-story building, about two miles east of Kabul, sat on flat ground about 50 yards from a radio transmission tower and bordered a junkyard for old military radio equipment, Fazal said, quoting telephoned reports from his field workers in Kabul.

The four victims—a fifth was treated at a local hospital and released—were inside when the bomb fell just before 5 a.m., he said, perhaps sleeping. “Only one leg was left of the poor people inside. Everything else disappeared,” Fazal added, quoting demining workers who viewed the wreckage. “For two weeks we have been hearing that there will be selective targets and that people will not be hurt. Now we are uncertain.”

© 2001 The Washington Post Company


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