U.S. doubts errant bomb caused deaths

Tuesday, July 2, 2002

Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- American gunfire, rather than an errant U.S. bomb, may have been responsible for scores of deaths reported in a central Afghan province, defense officials said Tuesday.

But it's too soon to know exactly what happened in Uruzgan province Monday night, where villagers reported neighbors killed in U.S. air attacks, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said.

"I just don't know the facts," he said at a news conference with Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Pace said Pentagon officials in Washington have not confirmed any deaths and don't yet know the locations of the casualties that the villagers are referring to.

He said, however, that an American aircraft attacked six locations in the province that soldiers believed were sources of anti-aircraft fire directed at them. Those positions were spread over several miles.

It was previously believed the attack involved only one village.

U.S. investigators were taking reporters and Afghan government representatives to the site where residents said between 40 and more than 100 civilians, including women and children, were killed in an attack early Monday in the village of Kakarak. That is about 175 miles southwest of the capital of Kabul.

"It's really a mistake for us to make judgments about what took place when we know we don't know," Rumsfeld said.

Other senior defense officials said earlier in the day on condition of anonymity that it appeared gunfire from a U.S. AC-130 plane aimed at the enemy or enemy fire aimed at the U.S. plane -- rather than an errant bomb -- may have been responsible for the casualties.

The AC-130 gunship lays down a field of fire from Gatling guns, cannons and 105 mm howitzers.

In calling for measures to guard against such accidents, Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah said Tuesday in Kabul that four villages were attacked.

U.S. military officials had said Monday that any of three things could have caused the civilian casualties. One was a malfunctioning bomb from an Air Force B-52 that was striking cave and bunker complexes in the vicinity.

But Pace said Tuesday that an American soldier on the ground saw the bomb fall in an area where there were no people.

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis said Monday that the B-52 bomber attacked a cave complex in the general area of Uruzgan province. It dropped seven precision-guided, 2,000-pound bombs and one went astray.

At about the same time as that bombing mission, a separate reconnaissance operation involving 300 to 400 Afghans and Americans was under way in the same vicinity.

An American on the ground for that operation reported fire from anti-aircraft artillery sites and called in the AC-130 gunship to counterattack, Davis said.

Survivors say planes attacked a wedding, perhaps mistaking celebratory fire from the party for anti-aircraft fire. A U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan discounted that theory.

Whatever the explanation, the matter is a reminder that the mission in Afghanistan is dangerous, not only for American and allied forces searching for al-Qaida and Taliban fighters but also for Afghan civilians. If the attack turns out to have been a deadly error by U.S. forces, it would not be the first time that human or mechanical error led to unintended deaths and injuries there.

Just last week, U.S. Central Command said it had determined that two Air National Guard F-16 pilots were primarily to blame for the mistaken bombing in April of Canadian forces in southern Afghanistan. One pilot dropped a 500-pound bomb that killed four Canadian soldiers and injured others.

On May 31, U.S. troops mistakenly killed three of their Afghan allies in a firefight that broke out when both sides moved separately into a compound mistakenly thought to be a hide-out of Taliban and al-Qaida leaders.

About 7,000 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan. They have conducted little aerial bombing in recent months and have engaged in little direct ground combat since March.

Much of their work is going out on patrols looking for the enemy, watching sites al-Qaida and Taliban may use to hide, finding weapons caches and so on.

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Central Command: http://www.centcom.mil

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