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Parents blame U.S. soldiers for deaths of four children

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Furious parents of Afghan children killed by a stray mortar fired during a U.S. military training drill accused American special forces Tuesday of ignoring their desperate pleas and letting their sons bleed to death.

Four boys died and three were injured in Saturday's incident at a firing range about six miles east of Kabul. The accident occurred as the U.S. 5th Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group from Fort Carson, Colo., was training Afghan soldiers in mortar and rifle fire.

The U.S. military says it is investigating and denies there was any delay in helping the injured children. But in interviews with The Associated Press, family members told a different story.

The brother of one victim said he begged for help, but that U.S. soldiers wouldn't believe him and kept firing. Two fathers said the Americans made them wait for hours before bringing them their sons, who died soon after.

"The American officers are responsible to God for the children they have killed, and one day they will have to answer for their actions," said Mohammed Akram, whose 15-year-old son Saeed Imran was killed.

Abdul Zaher, an Afghan military officer whose 14-year-old son Hafizullah was killed, said U.S. soldiers ignored his other son's pleas.

"After the accident, my son Habibullah ran to tell the Americans what had happened, but they did not take him seriously," said Abdul Zaher. "They kept firing."

Habibullah went to get his father, and Abdul Zaher says he and another man rushed to the scene, but were kept off the range by American and Afghan soldiers. He said they were made to wait in an office for four hours.

"My son Habibullah said 'Father, it is too late! Hafizullah is bleeding. He may die,' but there was nothing we could do," Abdul Zaher said.

A spokesman at the Kabul Military Training Center denied any delay. "It is completely false," said Sgt. Don Dees, adding that a team was sent to rescue the children the minute the army was notified.

Dees also said the army had warned residents of the exercises through patrols, and had shot flares before beginning the drills. He said the boys sneaked onto the range from behind the hill, and that soldiers were not aware of their presence.

"The area was physically checked before firing started. I have had no reports of children reporting the injuries and being ignored," said Col. Roger King, U.S. army spokesman at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul.

Dees said the army sent condolences, but would not discuss whether the families would be compensated.

Two of the injured boys were treated at a hospital run by international peacekeepers, the third at an American army hospital at Bagram, the U.S. military headquarters north of Kabul.

An Afghan Defense Ministry official said authorities felt terrible about the deaths, but that the military had adequately warned residents in the area. He said the boys walked more than a mile from their homes to get to the firing range.

"In the future, the Defense Ministry must pay more attention to keep children out of danger, but children must also learn not to stray onto military grounds," Saleh Mohammed Rigistani said.

The families said about 10 boys were hanging around the area when they heard firing from the range and decided to watch. But Dees said children often go to places where mortar rounds have been fired, to collect semiprecious lapis lazuli stones that are sometimes uncovered by the impact of the mortars.

Noor Gul, 14, said he and the others were sitting on a nearby hill when a mortar suddenly exploded among them. Two boys died instantly, he said, and five others lay bleeding. Several others ran to get help, he said.

Noor Gul said he bought a white cloth to put on Saeed Imran's grave, a sign of respect. Flags and brightly colored cloth on graves show that the victim was a martyr.

One father acknowledged that the U.S. military had warned residents not to go near the firing range, but he said there were no flags or fences to keep people out.

"Children don't know any better," Mohammad Akram said. "There is nothing to do in Afghanistan, and so when the shelling started the children decided to watch from the hill, because they have nothing else fun to do."


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