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Afghans Killed in U.S. Attack

Conflict: Forces led by Americans mistakenly fire on local soldiers in a failed Al Qaeda sting.

June 01, 2002|GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan — Three Afghan soldiers were killed and two wounded Friday by U.S.-led allies in a botched operation at what was expected to be a meeting of Al Qaeda operatives near the city of Gardez, U.S. military officials said.

The debacle occurred after U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers accompanied by Afghan fighters apparently stumbled onto a separate Afghan unit conducting a simultaneous operation at the village, said Col. Roger King, an Army spokesman for coalition forces.

The U.S.-led contingent opened fire on the Afghans after apparently mistaking them for the enemy in the predawn darkness, King said.

The American-led group "had no way of knowing" that the Afghan unit was going to be there, the colonel said.

The incident is under investigation, and the coalition will seek to take immediate steps to improve communication among various Afghan components, King said.

"Coordination measures will be taken," he said.

The incident unfolded as the U.S.-led force approached a compound in the village of Khomar Kalay, where intelligence indicated that Al Qaeda operatives planned to meet. The military contingent, which consisted of as many as 20 Special Forces soldiers and more than 80 Afghan fighters, was planning to take up blocking positions around the site and capture meeting participants as they left the compound.

As the American-led forces approached in vehicles, Special Forces soldiers observed activity inside the compound. Several armed men emerged from the site and appeared to be taking up defensive positions, King said.

Moments later, 10 to 12 men rushed out of the compound in what was perceived by American commanders as a hostile, flanking maneuver.

When the leader of the operation saw one of the Afghans appear to take aim at the American-led fighters with a rocket-propelled grenade, he ordered his unit to open fire. Within minutes, three Afghans were dead and two injured. Seventeen others laid down their weapons and surrendered, King said.

"We had no way of knowing they were there," King said, explaining that there is no regular communication between various elements of the Afghan army and coalition forces.

As of late Friday, the injured Afghans were being treated at a hospital at Bagram air base, about 30 miles north of the capital, Kabul. Bagram is the headquarters of coalition forces in Afghanistan.

The unharmed Afghans were released.

King said the Afghan unit appeared to be from Lowgar province, just north of Gardez, but he did not know whether it was affiliated with a particular local government or warlord. The Afghans indicated that they also were pursuing Al Qaeda members at the site.

King acknowledged that the U.S. and Afghan soldiers did not identify themselves as they approached, but he defended their decision to open fire. The men at the compound "were armed and moving in the direction of our forces," he said. "That is considered hostile intent."

Asked whether it would make sense for coalition forces to identify themselves in such situations, King replied: "It would make sense until the first person got shot for stopping and giving a warning."

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