A team of investigators from the Afghan government and the U.S. military today are continuing their probe into a U.S. air strike that reportedly killed more than 40 civilians at an engagement party in the central Afghan province of Oruzgan. The Pentagon says its forces were responding to antiaircraft fire and that it is still too early to say for certain if American forces were responsible for any civilian deaths. But ordinary Afghans who joined a protest in Kabul today say the attack has set back relations with the multinational antiterrorism coalition.
Kabul, 4 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. military investigators are visiting several villages in the Deh Rawud district of Afghanistan's central Oruzgan Province today to interview witnesses of a U.S. air strike that reportedly killed more than 40 civilians earlier this week.
Reports from Oruzgan Province say Afghan survivors have told investigators that the U.S. air strikes on Monday struck a walled compound where a group of people were celebrating the engagement of a young Pashtun couple.
Afghan Transitional Authority President Hamid Karzai has confirmed that the house was owned by Mullah Mohammad Anawar, a member of his Popalzai clan and a man that Karzai says once saved his life from an attack by Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters.
The ousted Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, was born in the area. Some reports suggest a U.S.-led operation that has been going on for several weeks in Oruzgan Province is aimed at tracking down Omar. But U.S. military officials at the Bagram air base north of Kabul deny those reports.
In Washington, Pentagon officials have said helicopters, an AC-130 gunship, and a B-52 bomber fired on six locations near Deh Rawud. They say the U.S. aircraft were responding to antiaircraft artillery and heavy machine-gun fire from all six locations.
The Pentagon also says the air assault was part of an ongoing operation against Taliban fighters known to have sympathizers in the area.
Colonel Roger King, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition forces, says hostile forces also have fired at U.S. aircraft from those six locations in the past.
Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke says Washington has received a preliminary report from the investigating team, which also includes two Afghan government ministers, the governor of Oruzgan Province, and several tribal leaders. Clarke said the investigators had seen some evidence of damage but had not determined whether it was caused by ordnance from U.S. aircraft. Clarke said the investigators also saw blood at the site. But she says they did not see any bodies or graves.
Those remarks angered local Afghans who watched the investigators working yesterday. According to a report filed by a reporter from "Stars and Stripes," a newspaper published by the U.S. armed forces, villagers say they told the American investigators that they had buried more than 30 people near Deh Rawud. The villagers said the four U.S. military colonels and one U.S. State Department official who form the U.S. part of the investigative team showed no interest in seeing the graves and did not visit the site, despite an invitation.
However, King -- the U.S. military spokesman -- is quoted today as saying that the team has asked villagers to show them the graves of bombing victims. The investigators are expected to be in the area for at least another day.
In Kabul today, about 200 Afghans staged what is believed to be the first anti-American protest since the collapse of the Taliban last year. The group gathered near the headquarters of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan before marching to other parts of the Afghan capital.
About half of the demonstrators were burqa-clad women. A woman named Maryam who marched without a burqa told RFE/RL that the Afghan people want to see an end to fighting in their country. She also said that foreign troops in Afghanistan are rapidly losing the support of the Afghan people because of similar U.S. air strikes that also have allegedly killed innocent civilians.
"[The foreign forces] should implement peace and stability in this country. They have to help our war-weary people. The Afghan people are completely exhausted from bombardments. Our people suffered a lot. They lost dear members of their families, their sisters and their brothers. Now we want peace to be implemented so that our people can live in tranquility."
One man in today's protest march, Kabul resident Abdul Qauyum Shaban, told RFE/RL that he thinks the 1 July air strikes have caused serious damage to relations between ordinary Afghans and soldiers in the multinational coalition forces.
Shaban said the refusal of the Pentagon so far to admit responsibility for killing civilians is the most infuriating aspect of the Oruzgan incident. "It is quite clear-cut to the people of the world that when a foreign enemy invades Afghanistan, the people of Afghanistan never accept it. Though we consider the act of the coalition forces in removing Al-Qaeda and the Taliban as a good one, still we condemn this bombardment on innocent people. This should not be repeated again."
The Afghan government also has complained about the 1 July incident. Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah says he has no doubt that the intentions of the United States and other countries in the antiterrorism coalition are good. But Abdullah says the U.S. should review its intelligence and targeting operations in order to prevent such incidents in the future.
Some witnesses have said they believe U.S. coalition forces mistook celebratory gunfire at the engagement party for hostile fire, an explanation rejected by the U.S. military.
Nevertheless, Karzai told RFE/RL this week that he will consult with the Afghan Defense Ministry on how to implement an order that would ban the traditional practice of firing weapons in the air during weddings and other celebrations -- at least in areas where the U.S.-led operation against terrorism is continuing.
Washington reportedly plans to provide aid to the villages that were affected by the attack. But U.S. officials say any aid disbursements are not an admission of guilt and should not be considered a precedent for compensation to civilians hurt as a result of collateral damage from the fighting.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan announced that it sent a team of investigators to Deh Rawud yesterday to assess aid needs and priorities. That team is expected to complete its work during the weekend.