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RESPONSE TO TERROR

U.S. Denies Report That Raid Killed Villagers

War: Afghans tell BBC that 100 civilians died in bombing, but Pentagon says airstrike hit Taliban compound. American forces take custody of more prisoners.

January 01, 2002|ESTHER SCHRADER and ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — American forces were accused Monday of bombing Afghan civilians by mistake, and defense officials emphatically denied the claim.

The strike early Saturday about five to 10 miles northwest of Gardiz, the capital of Paktia province, destroyed a Taliban compound, but not before two surface-to-air missiles were fired from the site at U.S. warplanes, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Klee, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla.

"This was not a village. It was a known Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership compound," Klee said of the strike, in which one B-52 and two B-1B bombers dropped precision-guided munitions.

"We looked at this location for an extended period of time. It wasn't like it was something that just popped up on the horizon that we shot at."

But residents of the village of Qalaye Niazi, just outside Gardiz, were quoted in British Broadcasting Corp. reports as saying that more than 100 residents were killed and many homes destroyed in the attack.

There was no confirmation of the village bombing report. Klee said one of the U.S. bombs triggered a series of secondary explosions, apparently confirming the suspicion of military intelligence analysts that explosives and munitions were stored at the site.

The surface-to-air missiles fired in the direction of U.S. warplanes during the strike originated from within the compound, Klee said. He said neither missile came close to hitting its mark.

"All the bombs struck the intended target," Klee said. "We struck what we targeted and nothing else."

Meanwhile, the number of suspected Taliban or Al Qaeda prisoners in U.S. custody continued to mount. U.S. forces took custody of 30 more Monday, said Maj. Cynthia Colin, a Pentagon spokeswoman; 25 were taken to a detention site in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. A total of 180 prisoners are now in U.S. custody.

The prisoners handed over were among the estimated 3,000 suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters being held by anti-Taliban Afghan forces. U.S. military interrogators have been working to identify the prisoners. Those shifted to U.S. custody represent an apparently elite group of mostly Arabs.

In Crawford, Texas, President Bush commented on the war effort.

"The definition of success is making sure the Taliban is out of existence, helping rebuild Afghanistan and disrupting this international terrorist network. I think we're doing a darn good job of it too."

Bush said there was no new information on the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden, whom the United States blames for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, or Mullah Mohammed Omar, who headed the Taliban regime that harbored Bin Laden and ruled much of Afghanistan from 1996 until it crumbled during the last two months under a U.S. military onslaught.

"He's running, and any time you get a person running, it means you're going to get him pretty soon," Bush said of Bin Laden. "I'm patient and so is our military."

Defense officials denied an Associated Press report Monday that helicopters carrying U.S. Marines in full combat gear were headed northwest from Kandahar to support an operation aimed at capturing or killing Omar.

"There are no Marines going anywhere today from Kandahar or anywhere else," said Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman.

Klee said a helicopter carrying a rapid-reaction force did leave the Kandahar base about 10:30 p.m. Monday to rescue a team of U.S. commandos that came under fire near Jalalabad in northeastern Afghanistan.

That is about the same time that Marines cited in the AP report reportedly left Kandahar, and that could have led to confusion by observers, Klee said.

One member of the commando team was shot in the leg in the incident near Jalalabad, Klee said. He said the commandos were driving in a nonmilitary car in an area that has been plagued by bandits and highway robbers in recent weeks. It was unclear who fired the shots, Klee said.

By the time the reinforcements arrived, Klee said, the shooters had fled. He said the wounded commando was taken to a medical facility.

The accusations by Afghan villagers and the denial from the Pentagon mirror a similar episode about a week ago, also in southeastern Afghanistan, in which the U.S. was accused of bombing a convoy containing tribal elders on their way to the ceremony installing the new interim government led by Hamid Karzai.

About 65 people were killed in that attack, and Karzai told tribal elders that he would ask the Americans to cut back their raids in the region. The Pentagon has insisted that the convoy was a legitimate target containing senior Taliban leaders. But Quigley, the Pentagon spokesman, acknowledged Friday that other people who were not associated with the Taliban might have been in the convoy as well.

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