Afghan governor admits U.S. paid bombing survivors

Thursday, February 14, 2002

TARIN KOT, Afghanistan -- U.S. warplanes bombarded a tractor carrying fleeing Afghan women and children in October, an Afghan governor said Wednesday. The governor said there were Taliban fighters among the civilians, a claim the survivors deny.

The survivors say 21 civilians, some of them babies, were killed in the attack in the village of Thorai in central Uruzgan province.

"You think Taliban would come among our women, or we would let them? There were no Taliban here," said Fasal Rabi, cradling his maimed 18-month-old son. The child's leg bore scars and swollen lumps of what the family said was U.S. shrapnel.

Rabi lost three other children and two brothers in the attack.

"We are not Taliban and we are not al-Qaida. We are innocent, and these were women and children," Rabi said.

The attack, at the height of the U.S. bombing campaign, was reported only sketchily at the time. Survivor accounts are the latest indication that some U.S. attacks in the four-month campaign have gone badly wrong.

Taliban were targeted

The United States has acknowledged error in another attack in the same province -- a Jan. 23 commando raid on a school. The governor of Uruzgan, Jan Mohammed Khan, said Wednesday he privately delivered U.S. apologies and $1,000 to $2,000 in cash to families of 19 men killed in that attack. The governor said the men were anti-Taliban figures sent by him to retrieve surrendered Taliban weapons.

But the U.S. military denied hitting Thorai. A military spokesman said warplanes targeted only a Taliban compound in the nearby city of Tarin Kot, the capital of Uruzgan.

"We had precision-guided missiles that we used on a Taliban leadership compound, command and control compound in Tarin Kot," spokesman Maj. Ralph Mills said Wednesday at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla. "We watched the imagery and we know that it hit the target that we were hoping to hit. All weapons were accounted for."

Villagers, however, showed metal shards, allegedly from U.S. bombs, with "No lift" written on them in English. In the field of one farmer lay the yellow-green canister of an unexploded bomb he said fell that Oct. 21 night.

Civilian homes hit

U.S. bombs hit a Taliban military headquarters and a police station in Tarin Kot before they struck in Thorai, local Afghans said. Both places were under Taliban control at the time.

Watching the bombing drew nearer, two families in Thorai loaded women and children into a metal trailer. The men hitched it to a tractor, and put Rabi's 22-year-old brother at the wheel, telling him to flee.

U.S. bombs hit before the tractor had moved 10 minutes down the road, Rabi said.

"Many planes were in the air," said Rabi's wife, who like many rural Afghan women declined to give her own name. "I saw one plane, and something very bright was coming then."

Outside their home, Rabi pointed to a manhole-size hole.

"My 14-year-old brother was sitting here," he said. "He died in pieces."

Men hurriedly moved the dead and injured inside the house after the bomb hit. U.S. planes returned for another strike on the now-empty tractor.

The next two bombs hit the home -- smashing two of the mud-and-straw rooms.

The wounded and dead had been in one of the rooms. In the end, the families said, 17 of the 21 casualties were children -- among them Rabi's 4- and 7-year-old sons and a 5-year-old daughter.

Families buried the dead hurriedly the next day.

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