Two U.S. soldiers killed, 20 wounded when B-52 bomber misses

Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- Two American soldiers were killed and 20 wounded in Afghanistan on Wednesday when a B-52 bomber missed its target. The friendly fire incident marked the worst U.S. casualties of the war to date.

An unknown number of opposition fighters also died in the incident north of the last Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Lapan. That is where opposition forces are trying to overthrow the besieged former rulers of the country.

The troops were hit at about 12:30 a.m. EST Wednesday (10 a.m. local time) when a B-52 flying a bombing raid dropped a bomb "in close proximity to friendly forces," said a Pentagon statement.

Casualties were evacuated to a Marine base in southern Afghanistan for transfer to a medical facility outside the country, said Marine Capt. David Romley. A number of anti-Taliban injured also were being treated at the base.

The deaths bring to three the number of Americans killed inside Afghanistan in the two-month war. CIA paramilitary Johnny "Mike" Spann was killed Nov. 25 in a prisoner uprising while questioning forces captured in the fighting.

In a bombing accident on Oct. 5, five U.S. soldiers were seriously wounded when a U.S. bomb went astray while warplanes were helping put down the uprising in which Spann was killed.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has pointed out in recent days that the United States has entered a more dangerous phase in the war to root out the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist network.

"It is a very complicated, untidy circumstance, and it makes it a dangerous and difficult task," Rumsfeld said Tuesday of fighting around the country.

The base where the casualties were taken was established by U.S. Marines about 70 miles southwest of Kandahar to help put more pressure on those holding out in the city. Rumsfeld said the Marines probably would not be involved in attacking the city, but are blocking Taliban forces from leaving or entering Kandahar.

A Fort Bragg spokesman said some of the American casualties included special operations soldiers from Fort Campbell, Ky., the headquarters of Army special operations.

The names of the killed and wounded were being withheld pending notification of their families.

The Pentagon said an investigation was under way.

American troops have been on the ground in Afghanistan for weeks to help forces fighting the Taliban militia, giving them weapons, food and other supplies. They also have been helping call in airstrikes, pinpointing targets for U.S. warplanes.

American planes have been bombing Kandahar to help anti-Taliban attackers, while Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, has instructed his followers not to surrender.

Two main groups of anti-Taliban forces are pressing toward Kandahar as the Marine base's contingent of about 1,300 operates within striking distance. The opposition forces included those of Hamid Karzai, who has just been named head of the provisional government in Afghanistan.

The United States is focusing its bombing on Kandahar and the mountainous area near the Khyber Pass south of Jalalabad, where it is believed bin Laden and his top lieutenants are hiding in a complex of caves and tunnels.

In addition to Spann, four Americans, all military personnel, have been killed in connection with the fighting in Afghanistan. All died in accidents outside the country, two in a helicopter crash in Pakistan.

The Pentagon said a U.S. soldier was wounded in the fighting near Kandahar Tuesday. The special forces soldier was shot under the collarbone, but his injuries were not life-threatening, defense officials said. The soldier was working with one of the anti-Taliban groups surrounding Kandahar, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The wounded soldier was evacuated from Afghanistan and was in stable condition at a military hospital, a U.S. Central Command statement said.