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RESPONSE TO TERROR | TALIBAN UNDER SIEGE

5 U.S. Servicemen Wounded by American Bomb

Asia: Explosive missed its target near prison, Pentagon says. CIA is mum about reports of missing operative.

November 27, 2001|ESTHER SCHRADER and BOB DROGIN and GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Five U.S. servicemen were seriously injured by "friendly fire" Monday in an effort to quell a revolt by Taliban prisoners in northern Afghanistan, the Pentagon said, and reports persisted that a CIA operative was dead or missing.

The servicemen were wounded when a U.S. satellite-guided bomb missed its target after the team had called in airstrikes in support of Northern Alliance forces, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters.

They were said to be in serious condition Monday at a U.S. military field hospital in Uzbekistan. Medical teams planned to move them to Landstuhl, Germany, for further treatment when their conditions stabilized, Myers said. Their identities were not released.

CIA spokesman Bill Harlow said he would not discuss reports that a CIA officer or contract employee was among the casualties of the prison uprising. He said, however, that the situation at the prison remained uncertain and that the agency was not sure whether the individual was dead or missing.

"The question remains open as to the status of that individual," he said.

As the war moves into a new, potentially more dangerous phase, "America must be prepared for loss of life," President Bush said Monday. "Obviously, no president or commander in chief hopes anybody loses life in the theater, but it's going to happen." Bush spoke in the White House Rose Garden after meeting with two freed U.S. aid workers who had been imprisoned in Afghanistan.

Of the 600 Taliban fighters originally detained in the mud-walled fortress near Mazar-i-Sharif, only about 150 non-Afghan Taliban fighters were still holding out Monday, said Abdul Wahid, a Northern Alliance official. The rest were killed or injured, either during the battle or during three U.S. airstrikes.

"We have asked them many times to surrender, but they are not listening to us," Wahid said by satellite phone from Mazar-i-Sharif.

Alliance officers said about 40 of their troops had died in the uprising.

Myers and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld described the revolt as fierce, with Taliban fighters inside the fort armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns and others strapping live grenades to their waists and diving at their jailers to kill as many people as possible--including themselves.

"There are hundreds of prisoners in there. And some got ahold of weapons, and some got loose, and some have escaped, and some are fighting, and some are penned up," Rumsfeld said.

". . . Now, if you have people who are willing to have hand grenades wrapped around themselves and blow themselves up so they can kill a half dozen other people in close proximity to them, the thought that they'll surrender readily is not likely," he said.

For more than a week, intense negotiations have been underway over the fate of foreign fighters in the Taliban. Rumsfeld and other U.S. officials have said they should be captured or killed in battle.

Meanwhile, questions continued about whether a CIA operative was caught in the middle of the prison revolt Sunday. Former CIA officers speculated that the individual may have been a contract employee, and congressional sources also hinted at that possibility.

The CIA has fielded a covert paramilitary force inside Afghanistan to help gather intelligence. The agency also has hired dozens of contractors in recent weeks both in the region and at its headquarters in Langley, Va. Many of these workers are agency or military retirees hired for temporary assignments as analysts and linguists. Some also have served as military advisors to the Northern Alliance.

One former CIA officer said the casualty was probably a former military officer helping to manage the makeshift prison where the uprising took place. Another former officer speculated that the victim may have been working as a translator for U.S. military officials or CIA officers questioning prisoners.

Since its creation in 1947, at least 71 CIA officers have died while conducting covert missions in the field. But the spy agency has refused to publicly identify many of its slain agents even decades after their deaths. Even family members have been denied complete accounts.

The agency instead has erected a memorial to its slain agents in the entrance of the CIA headquarters. A marble wall is inscribed with 71 gold stars, and beneath them lies a book locked inside a glass case. Known as the "Book of Honor," it lists 35 names. The other 36 names remain classified.

*

Times staff writer Maura Reynolds in Kunduz, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.

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