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Afghanistan: Investigation Launched Into U.S. Air Strike On Civilians

A delegation of Afghan and American officials are traveling to a remote village north of Kandahar today to investigate reports that a U.S. air strike yesterday killed scores of ethnic Pashtuns from the Popalzai tribe of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. U.S. military officials say the B-52 air strike was called in after another U.S. plane was fired upon by what appeared to be hostile Afghans. But witnesses from the Popalzai tribe say the casualties were caused by a bomb that struck an engagement party in which Afghans were celebrating by firing weapons in the air.

Bagram, Afghanistan; 2 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A team of Afghan government officials, U.S. military officers, and at least one investigator from the U.S. State Department is traveling to the central Afghan province of Oruzgan today to investigate a B-52 air strike that reportedly killed scores of ethnic Pashtun civilians.

Afghan officials have said that at least 40 people were killed in the early hours before dawn yesterday when a bomb struck a party that was celebrating the engagement of two young Pashtuns from the Popalzai tribe of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

At the time of the air strike, there were some 600 guests at the party, which was held within a walled compound near the village of Deh Rawud, about 110 kilometers north of Kandahar. The house was owned by a prominent member of the Popalzai tribe named Mullah Mohammad Anwar.

Karzai told RFE/RL today that he has known Anwar for a long time and has worked closely with him in the past. "Mullah Mohammad Anwar is not only a person that I know, but during an attack against us by the Taliban and Arabs in Durgee Canyon [when I myself was fighting against the Taliban in Oruzgan Province], he helped us a lot and saved us," Karzai said.

Karzai also said it is too early for him to comment on what impact the bombing might have on relations between Afghans and the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition.

Relatives of Anwar also say that at least 12 members of their family were killed, including both the future of bride and the groom. Witnesses have told RFE/RL that some people at the engagement party were celebrating in the traditional Afghan manner by firing weapons into the air.

That tradition was criticized today by Karzai, who urged Afghans to stop the celebratory tradition of shooting guns and other weapons into the air. "It is an important issue that we will discuss with the Ministry of Defense. This celebratory gunfire, which itself often kills many people in Afghanistan, should be prevented, and we will issue a general decision on this issue later on," Karzai said.

It is unclear, however, if the U.S. air strike was in response to the gun rounds fired at the engagement party. U.S. Colonel Roger King, a spokesman for the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition forces in Afghanistan, said the air strike was called in after special forces who were conducting a reconnaissance mission on the ground felt threatened by automatic gunfire nearby. King said he does not think the U.S. troops had mistaken celebratory gunfire for hostile fire.

The U.S. ground troops were taking part in a major operation to hunt down the ousted Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, who is known to have many sympathizers in the mountainous Oruzgan Province. King said the U.S. troops first called in air support from helicopters and an AC-130 Specter gunship. "As I understand it, there was automatic-weapons fire that the ground troops felt threatened by, which is why they called in close air support," King said.

King said the B-52 air strike was called in after the AC-130 gunship was targeted by what he called "sustained antiaircraft artillery fire" from the top of a ridge near Deh Rawud. "Close air support from U.S. Air Force B-52 and AC-130 aircraft struck several ground targets, including antiaircraft artillery sites that were engaging U.S. aircraft," King said.

King said that the antiaircraft fire included heavy-caliber machine guns, as well as light artillery rounds.

In Washington, Pentagon officials have admitted that one of seven bombs dropped by the B-52 had malfunctioned. Anwar's property is in a valley near the ridge, indicating that it may, indeed, have been struck by a bomb that missed its intended target on the ridge. The U.S. military command has apologized for any civilian casualties that may have been caused.

But the apology appears to have done little to dampen the anger of local Afghans. The governor of Oruzgan Province, Jan Mohammad Khan, told RFE/RL today that the Pashtuns in the area are very angry at the U.S.-led coalition. Khan said it is not safe for any outsiders, including Afghans from other parts of the country, to travel into the mountains in the southeastern corner of Oruzgan Province where the bombing took place.

The directors of United Nations agencies in Afghanistan were informed late yesterday that some 120 civilians may have been killed in the air strike.

One local Afghan official in charge of the district of Deh Rawud in Oruzgan Province told RFE/RL today that he thinks the death toll could eventually top 150. He also said that as many as 200 people were injured.

The Pentagon has confirmed that four children, aged 5 or younger, were injured and taken to a U.S. military hospital in Kandahar.

RFE/RL's correspondent in Kandahar reported that at least 30 injured Afghans -- most of them women and children who were at the engagement party -- have been brought to a hospital in Kandahar that is run by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Others who were injured in the air strike have been arriving at hospitals in Kandahar throughout the day today. Some Afghans also reportedly have been taking their injured relatives into Pakistan for medical treatment.

In the capital Kabul, foreign troops from the International Security Assistance Force have been put on alert in case of possible reprisal attacks. The United Nations said it is helping to arrange a government convoy of emergency medical supplies to the region with the help of the World Health Organization and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Officials from the U.S-led antiterrorism coalition said privately that they are concerned that incidents like yesterday's bombing could cause strong animosities among Afghans and unravel months of work aimed at winning the hearts of the Afghan people.

(Najibullah Asekzai in Kandahar and Ahmad Takal in Kabul contributed to this story.)