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Afghanistan: Four Canadian Soldiers Killed By U.S. Air Strike

Four Canadian soldiers were killed and eight wounded overnight in Afghanistan when a U.S. warplane dropped at least one laser-guided bomb on them near Kandahar. Canadian officials are asking how such an accident could happen in an area known to U.S. forces as a training site. The deaths are the latest in a series of so-called friendly-fire accidents in Afghanistan, where U.S. bombs have killed or injured troops taking part in the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism.

Prague, 18 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A U.S. F-16 fighter jet mistakenly dropped at least one laser-guided bomb on Canadian soldiers that were taking part in a live-fire training exercise near Kandahar, Afghanistan, overnight.

General Ray Henault, chief of Canada's Defense Staff, told reporters at a press conference in the Canadian capital, Ottawa, that at least four Canadian soldiers were killed. He said another eight soldiers were wounded, including two who sustained "life-threatening injuries."

"Four Canadian soldiers were killed and eight injured, some very seriously, when an American F-16 fighter jet released one and possibly two 500-pound [225-kilogram] bombs on troops of the [Canadian] battle group involved in a night firing exercise on a range 14 to 15 kilometers south of the Kandahar airfield in Afghanistan," Henault said.

The bombing is one of the worst so-called friendly-fire incidents for troops in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism began there more than six months ago.

In an announcement about the accident, U.S. Major Bryan Hilferty acknowledged that an error had occurred. "Here in Afghanistan, the situation remains dangerous. At approximately 01:55 this morning, a U.S. Air National Guard F-16 dropped one or two 500-pound bombs on our Canadian allies operating near Kandahar. There were dead and wounded among the Canadians."

Hilferty said the incident must be investigated fully before it can be determined exactly what happened.

A statement issued by Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien says the families of the Canadian soldiers -- as well as all Canadians -- expect answers to questions surrounding the bombing. In particular, Canadian officials are questioning why an American plane would drop a bomb in an area where it was known that Canadian troops were training.

"How this sort of thing can happen is a mystery to us. That's what the investigation will determine. I can't speculate at this point in time. All I can say to you is that without a doubt, there was a misidentification of the Canadians and what they were doing on the ground. And that was obviously the cause of this accident," Henault said.

Henault indicated that U.S. officials were aware of the Canadian training exercise. He said the F-16 that dropped the ordnance was not involved with that exercise. That remark has led to speculation by Western correspondents in Afghanistan that the pilot of the plane had not been informed of the training.

"The battle group was conducting a regular live-fire training exercise -- a nighttime live-fire training exercise -- in an area that is recognized as a training area. The aircraft that are over-flying and assisting in operations in Afghanistan are operating on well-recognized and very well-controlled routes, under very strict control," Henault said.

Henault said some of the injured soldiers will be moved to a medical facility in Uzbekistan, while others will be sent to a medical facility at a military base in Ramstein, Germany. He said two soldiers who sustained minor injuries will remain in Kandahar for treatment.

The incident is the first involving the deaths of Canadian troops in a military offensive since the Korean War nearly 50 years ago. The victims were all members of the Third Battalion of the Edmonton-based Princess Patricias Canadian Light Infantry.

A total of about 900 members of that regiment have been serving since February as part of the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition in Afghanistan. Canada has contributed ships, aircraft, and a total of about 2,500 troops to coalition operations in and around Afghanistan.

Canadian Prime Minister Chretien says U.S. President George W. Bush called him to offer condolences to the families of the Canadian soldiers. Chretien said Bush had promised complete cooperation with Canadian authorities carrying out an investigation.

U.S. officials at the Pentagon and at the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, also are working on the investigation.

But Henault indicated that the Pentagon has not yet begun sharing details with senior Canadian defense officials about what happened. Henault made the remark when asked whether there may have been Taliban or Al-Qaeda activity near the Canadian soldiers that could have caused the U.S. pilot to be confused.

"There is no hostile activity in the area that I'm aware of. But again, the details are something that need to be determined. These kinds of details we have not been made privy to. But certainly, my understanding is that there was no hostile activity in the area that would have created this incident," Henault said.

The incident is the latest in a series of errors that have caused U.S. bombs to fall on targets in Afghanistan other than Taliban or Al-Qaeda fighters or their facilities.

In October, U.S. forces twice bombed a Red Cross building that was being used to store humanitarian food supplies in Kabul. U.S. military officials say the International Red Cross did not provide coordinates for the building before the first strike. Authorities are still investigating why bombs were dropped on the food warehouse a second time.

On 11 November, a United Nations convoy was damaged by U.S. air strikes. U.S. officials said the strikes were aimed at closing a road and that the convoy had been damaged by debris. They say UN officials had not informed U.S. forces that the convoy would be traveling on that day.

The first bombing error to result in coalition casualties came on 26 November when an F-18 dropped a bomb during a prison riot by captured Taliban fighters near Mazar-i-Sharif. Five U.S. soldiers were injured. U.S. military officials said after their investigation that there were "procedural errors" in transmitting the coordinates for the intended target to the F-18.

On December 5, a U.S. B-52 dropped a bomb on U.S. and Afghan forces that were working together near Kandahar. Three American soldiers were killed along with at least seven Afghans.

The leader of Afghanistan's interim government, Hamid Karzai, had been inspecting the area and sustained minor injuries. Although the U.S. investigation into that bombing is not yet complete, authorities have said they think there were errors in transmitting target coordinates to the B-52.

Dozens of Afghans were killed on 22 December when U.S. aircraft bombed a convoy near Khost. Some Afghans say the convoy was carrying tribal leaders to the inauguration of Karzai in Kabul. They have accused a local Pashtun commander of calling in air strikes because of a dispute he had with those tribal leaders. Senior U.S. military commanders insist the convoy was carrying members of the Taliban and was therefore a legitimate target.

One U.S. soldier was killed on 2 March at the start of Operation Anaconda in what may have been an air strike by a U.S. plane. That incident is still under investigation. Another incident still being looked into occurred four days later when 14 Afghans were killed by an air strike against a suspected Al-Qaeda target near Shikin. The dead included three women and three children.