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Afghanistan: U.S. Rejects Claims Of Civilian Deaths, Rules Out 'Poor Intelligence'

U.S. military officials in Afghanistan are denying claims by local Afghan officials that a recent airstrike killed 11 civilians in the southern province of Oruzgan. And they are rejecting accusations that poor intelligence and indiscriminate shooting may have led U.S. forces to kill women and children.

Prague, 21 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. military officials say they still have no evidence to corroborate claims by local officials in southern Afghanistan that 11 civilians were killed on 18 January by a U.S. airstrike.

The local Afghan officials, including Oruzgan Province Governor Jan Mohammed Khan, say a U.S. helicopter bombed a house in the Char China district to the north of the town of Deh Rawood. They say the dead included four children, three women and four men.

But the chief U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty, told RFE/RL that only five armed Taliban fighters are known to have been killed as a result of ordnance from U.S. forces.

Hilferty also rejected comments today by unnamed diplomats in Kabul who told the French news agency AFP that U.S. forces had fired indiscriminately at Afghan civilians. "We still believe that we killed five anticoalition forces in that incident north of Deh Rawood. We have no indication that there are any noncombatant casualties. We have very stringent rules of engagement, which we continue to upgrade and to look at. And in this particular case, [this is] evidenced by the fact that after we killed those five armed adult males, [we saw] a large crowd coming out of several compounds and gather near them. We did not engage them. In fact, we moved out of the way to avoid a further incident because we could not clearly identify [those in the crowd] as anticoalition forces."

Residents of the remote mountain region of Oruzgan Province are predominantly Pashtun, but the sympathies of the local population are thought to be split between those who support the Taliban and those who back Afghan Transitional Administration (ATA) Chairman Hamid Karzai.

The former Afghan spiritual leader and top Taliban official, Mullah Omar, comes from a village close to the place where the incident occurred. But there also are many members of Karzai's extended Pashtun clan living in Oruzgan Province.

Karzai has confirmed that his friends and clan members in Oruzgan Province saved his life in the same area in late 2001, before the collapse of the Taliban regime, when he was involved in an anti-Taliban operation there and had been surrounded by Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters.

Since the collapse of the Taliban, several coalition operations have been launched in the area, reportedly in an effort to capture Mullah Omar. He remains at large, however. In July 2002, an errant night U.S. airstrike killed about 50 Afghans and injured more than 100 who were attending a wedding party at the home of one of Karzai's friends and fellow tribesmen.

In that incident, the announcement that U.S. ordnance had killed civilians was supported almost immediately by officials from competing factions within the ATA.

But in the latest incident, the Afghan government has not backed the claims of the Oruzgan Province governor. Hilferty says coalition ground troops were involved in an operation north of Deh Rawood after receiving intelligence indicating that "mid-level" Taliban leaders were meeting in a specific compound.

"I can tell you that in this particular case, we had very good intelligence -- I can't tell you exactly what, obviously -- that there were mid-level Taliban leaders meeting at this one compound. And the five individuals that we shot -- they were at night, armed, [and] coming from another compound toward a position that they knew was a coalition position -- obviously by the sound and noises over there. And their actions were hostile. We don't have to wait until people actually shoot at us."

Hilferty ruled out the possibility that militia fighters from one Afghan faction might have intentionally given false information to the U.S. military about the presence of Taliban fighters in order to settle a local feud.

Hilferty told RFE/RL the intelligence the U.S. military received that day was something more than a report provided by Afghan forces working as part of the U.S.-led coalition. And he said the intelligence had been confirmed by U.S. forces on the ground.

"There is no indication here that there was any intelligence that was someone else trying to settle a grudge or something," he said. "These were armed adult males coming towards a coalition military position at night in a threatening manner."

Hilferty declined to comment on another report by AFP. That report quoted an unnamed security expert in Kabul as saying that poor intelligence may have led to the civilian deaths.