Pentagon admits stray bombs hit civilian areas

Wednesday, October 24, 2001

Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- The Pentagon is vowing to flush out any Afghan fighters who hide in residential areas to escape aerial attacks even as it acknowledges a few of its bombs accidentally struck civilian sites.

And a Pakistani militant group confirmed Wednesday that 22 of its fighters, including several senior commanders, were killed in Tuesday in the bombing of a house, the deadliest strike known so far against a group linked to Osama bin Laden.

U.S. jets kept up heavy night-and-day bombardments around the Afghan capital, Kabul, with huge explosions Wednesday in the direction of Taliban military sites on the outskirts.

Meanwhile, Pakistani officials said they think Taliban infiltrators were responsible for the weekend shooting attack on U.S. helicopters in Pakistan.

Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said Tuesday that forces will go after Afghan fighters who hide in residential areas.

"There is not an intention to open or widen (air) attacks in the cities," Stufflebeem said.

"We will find other ways ... to get at those who might cowardly decide to hide in residential neighborhoods," he said in a reference to possible use of commandos or other ground forces.

He said the two-week-old bombing campaign also was aiming at roads, trucks, petroleum facilities, food and other supplies that Afghanistan's Taliban leaders need to stay in power, but that choking them off "is going to be a very long and slow process."

His warning to Al-Qaida and Taliban troops came as the Defense Department acknowledged stray bombs hit two more civilian areas in Afghanistan.

Late Sunday afternoon, a Navy F/A-18 Hornet dropped a 1,000-pound bomb in an open field near a senior citizens home outside the western city of Herat, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said. She said she did not know how many people were killed.

"As we always say, we regret any loss of civilian life," Clarke said. "We take great care in our targeting process to avoid civilian casualties."

The Taliban had said a strike Monday hit a Herat hospital and killed at least 100 people.

The intended target was a vehicle storage building at an army barracks approximately 300 feet from the home. Preliminary indications are that the weapon's guidance system malfunctioned, she said.

Earlier Sunday, Clarke said, a Navy F-14 Tomcat dropped two 500-pound bombs that mistakenly hit a residential area northwest of Kabul. The intended targets were military vehicles parked about one-half mile away. She said she did not know how many people may have been hurt or killed.

In Karachi, Pakistan, Muzamal Shah, a senior official of the banned Harkat ul-Mujaen, said a U.S. bomb struck a house Tuesday while 22 fighters from his group were meeting there to "devise a plan for fighting against America."

Harakat ul-Mujahedeen, or "Movement of the Holy Warriors," is one of the largest militant organizations fighting Indian soldiers in the disputed Kashmir region, was declared a terrorist organization by United States years ago, and was among 27 groups and individuals whose assets were frozen by the United States, Pakistan and other countries after the terrorist attacks.

Many of the strikes Tuesday were on Taliban positions north of Kabul, where so-called northern alliance forces are preparing for a possible push to the Afghan capitol. In a Voice of America radio interview Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the United States would welcome any anti-Taliban push toward Kabul.

"We would like to see every city held by the Taliban taken," Rumsfeld said.

Pakistan, a key Muslim ally in the anti-terrorism fight, has opposed allowing the alliance to seize Kabul. Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, said Tuesday he feared "that maybe atrocities (could) start in Kabul" if the alliance took the city.

Pentagon also disclosed new details about an incident during Saturday's commando raids into Afghanistan, in which an airfield was seized and documents taken from a Taliban compound that included a residence of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

An Army MH-47 special operations helicopter struck an unknown barrier while it was taking off from Afghanistan after the raid, shearing off its front landing gear, Clarke said. It continued the flight without incident and returned safely to an undisclosed base. No one aboard was injured, she said.

And the Pentagon also disclosed that on Saturday a U.S. helicopter that had picked up a crippled Army Black Hawk helicopter that had crashed hours earlier in Pakistan came under hostile fire while refueling at a Pakistani airfield.

Pakistani military sources said Wednesday on condition of anonymity that they think the helicopter was fired on by Taliban fighters who infiltrated Pakistan and are under the protection of tribes in that area of Baluchistan. The government is sending emissaries to the tribes.

The incident occurred near the Panjgur air base in southwestern Pakistan, the sources said, adding that American troops are no longer using this base.

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