Bombs Reportedly Kill Taliban Foes
Campaign: Villagers also die, witnesses say. Afghan officials question American intelligence data.
By MEGAN K. STACK
Los Angeles Times (Dec 3, 2001)
JALALABAD, Afghanistan -- Eight tribal soldiers who were helping the United States hunt fugitive terrorists and hard-line Taliban in the rugged mountains near Tora Bora were killed in their sleep early Sunday when warplanes bombed their headquarters, survivors said.
Fighter jets twice attacked the sole government building in the tiny village of Landakhel, according to wounded survivors and witnesses. The bombs apparently struck anti-Taliban ethnic Pushtuns who were working with the U.S. to capture Osama bin Laden.
The northeastern mountains shook with bombs all weekend, and witnesses said that at least four impoverished villages were caught in a torrent of air raids. The United States has acknowledged bombing the hills south of Jalalabad, where some officials suspect Bin Laden has taken refuge in a complex of caves. In the surrounding countryside, Afghan officials said, more than 80 villagers and friendly soldiers were killed in two days and nearly 200 civilians were injured. Witnesses and survivors said more than 200 civilians lay dead in the rubble of broken hamlets.
Defense Department officials said Sunday that they were investigating the report but could not confirm whether any anti-Taliban soldiers were killed by U.S. bombs.
A spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Florida stressed that the recent airstrikes in the Tora Bora region have targeted only known Taliban and Al Qaeda strongholds and that all U.S. bombs have hit their intended targets.
"We've accounted for all rounds," Maj. Brad Lowell said.
But as slow caravans of dead and wounded made their way down from the mountains, Afghan officials wondered aloud whether the United States is using flawed intelligence or outdated maps to choose its targets. And from outlying farms to Jalalabad's downtown bazaar, accounts of the bombing raids provoked a fresh wave of anger against the U.S. and Britain.
"[The Pentagon] just says, 'Sorry.' But it's a crime against humanity," said Haji Mohammed Zaman, commander of the anti-Taliban tribal forces that nominally control northeastern Afghanistan. "They are using old maps, they are shooting at the villages. This is a war, but they must take care about these things."
An angry Zaman herded foreign reporters into a Jalalabad hospital Sunday to view the twisted corpses of his soldiers. Frowning over the dead moujahedeen, the commander called the Pentagon's explanation "lies."
Zaman has been working with U.S. military officials to apprehend the elusive inhabitants of Tora Bora, a sprawling complex of caves and chambers carved into the peaks of the White Mountain range. The underground base is a longtime redoubt for Bin Laden's Al Qaeda terror network, and officials believe that 600 to 2,000 terrorists and Taliban may be hiding there. Bin Laden, they say, may be among them.
Tribal leaders have urged the United States to chip in with money, guns and ammunition to help them capture and kill the suspected terrorists--widely described here as "the Arabs." The U.S. has said it is working with anti-Taliban forces.
Last week, Zaman sent a squadron of guerrilla soldiers to Landakhel, a village nestled into the hills 10 miles northwest of Tora Bora. The men were instructed to secure the surrounding countryside, he said, in readiness for an attack on or siege of the terrorist hide-out.
Eight dead soldiers were carried back down to Jalalabad on canvas stretchers at sunrise Sunday. Their muddy, bloody bodies were laid out on the tile floor of the public hospital. In Afghan tradition, the dead are buried quickly--before sundown on the day of death. But these soldiers came from remote villages. Zaman sent for their families, who would carry them home.
The men were sleeping on the floor of the district office in Landakhel when jets roared overhead. It was about 1:30 Sunday morning, survivors said. Some of the men were beaten awake as chunks of roof rained around them.
"When I woke up, the building had collapsed, and I couldn't move," said Shir Pacho, a 25-year-old soldier whose back was broken in the bombings. "My beard was burned off. My mouth was full of dirt."
Villagers from Landakhel flocked to the ruined office. They sifted through the rubble in the darkness, searching for the dead and wounded. Ten minutes later, another jet sliced the sky, and another bomb thundered down.
A 35-year-old farmer named Majnoon said he was hauling chunks of the broken building from atop the initial victims when the second bomb dropped. His head, chest, hands, arms and legs were covered with gashes.
"I don't know why they bombed us," he said. "We are not sinful people. These are children, and these are villagers."
On neighboring peaks, anywhere from 20 to well over 100 villagers were reported dead in bombing raids on an area known as Kama Ado. And in the villages of Balut and Akal Khan, 50 more civilian deaths were reported.
Gathering information about the attacks on the rough collections of mud, stick and stone houses is difficult. The villagers often have little or no contact with the rest of the world--and outsiders can reach the hamlets only on rough dirt roads and foot trails.
Tensions laced downtown Jalalabad on Sunday as tales of slain villagers were passed from household to household. Shopkeepers shuttered their stores, and foreign journalists were ordered by local authorities to stay within the city limits.
"America is bombing our villages and our civilians," said Haji Abdullah, a lifelong rebel soldier who fought the Soviets in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s.
"When our blood is flowing, can we remain happy with America?"
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