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Afghanistan: Pentagon Probing Deadly Incident

Expressing regret for an incident involving Afghan civilian casualties this week, the Pentagon Tuesday disputed eyewitness reports that a U.S. bomb had mistakenly hit a wedding party south of Kabul. U.S. officials said it is more likely that an American warplane hunting fugitive terrorists returned fire after coming under attack.

Washington, 3 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- American officials say the crew of a U.S. warplane taking part in a deadly incident involving Afghan civilians believed it was returning hostile fire.

General Peter Pace, vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon briefing on Tuesday that the facts surrounding the incident are unclear.

U.S. warplanes on Monday were patrolling an area southwest of Kabul believed to contain Taliban and Al-Qaeda fugitives when, according to Afghan officials, one of the planes attacked a party celebrating the wedding of two Pashtuns from the same tribe as Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Afghan officials said that at least 40 people were killed and 100 wounded when a bomb dropped from a B-52 struck the party near the village of Deh Rawud.

Pace, who said U.S. officials had no knowledge as yet of any civilian deaths, said B-52s were in the area but rejected the possibility that any were involved in the incident. "There was a B-52 that was flying a mission at about that time. It did drop seven precision-guided munitions. They were being spotted and controlled by an air controller on the ground, who saw the impacts of the seven weapons. Six of them flew to the targets that they were designed to hit, which were cave complexes. The seventh one was flying to its target and hit an intervening hill mass about 3,000 [meters] short of its intended target. That hill mass had no people on it," Pace said.

The more likely scenario, Pace said, was that an AC-130 warplane was involved. He said the lethal, low-flying gunship had returned fire on six targets over several kilometers.

Witnesses at the wedding party say that people were firing weapons into the air in a traditional Afghan display of celebration.

Pace did not say whether the AC-130 was responding to the celebratory gunfire. On Monday, U.S. Colonel Roger King, spokesman for U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, said that U.S. forces had come under direct heavy attack and that he did not think American airmen mistook the celebratory gunfire for hostile fire.

Pace said he could only confirm that the AC-130 crew believed it was returning fire at antiaircraft artillery. Such attacks on U.S. planes have been frequent in that area, Pace said. "I will tell you, if you happen to be the person that's on the other end of whatever the weapon is that's pointed at you, and it is firing, it is very difficult to know whether or not that's a friendly muzzle flash or an enemy muzzle flash," Pace said.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that Afghan and U.S. officials were investigating the incident, which happened 280 kilometers southwest of Kabul, but that it may take days to get to the bottom of it. He added that mistakes are inevitable in war but said the verdict was still out in this incident. "Any time there is loss of innocent life for whatever reason it is a tragedy, and certainly the commander on the ground has expressed regret for any innocent loss of life," Rumsfeld said.

But the new Afghan government, which has taken office in the wake of U.S. firepower, reacted strongly to what it has called a tragedy. In a rare display of forcefulness toward Washington, Kabul demanded on Tuesday that the U.S. take "all necessary measures" to avoid civilian deaths as it continues to seek terrorist fugitives.

Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah made this statement in Kabul: "In a situation where too many civilians are being either killed or wounded, I think it is appropriate to express concern in the strongest words possible to avoid further problems as such recurring."

In Kabul, the government said Karzai had called U.S. officials and commanders to his office and "strongly advised them of the grave concern and sorrow" over Monday's incident.

It is unclear how many civilians have been killed in the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan, which began last October aimed at rooting out Al-Qaeda terrorists blamed for the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States and their hosts, the Taliban government.

Kenneth Roth, the head of Human Rights Watch, told RFE/RL that the U.S.-based human-rights organization is now wrapping up a months-long investigation into the war's civilian casualties and will publish its findings in four to six weeks.

If the Afghan reports are confirmed, Monday's incident may have been the worst loss of civilian life since December, when U.S. bombs hit a 40-vehicle convoy of Afghan tribal elders, killing as many as 65.

The Pentagon said at the time that it believed Al-Qaeda members were in the convoy, but according to Afghans, the victims were tribal leaders on their way to Kabul to salute Karzai, who had just taken power.