Civilian Toll Not U.S. Fault, Afghans Say

Times Staff Writer

U.S. troops were not responsible for the deaths of six children killed in an attack on a suspected Taliban hide-out, an Afghan official said Wednesday.

The children and two adults were crushed to death Friday during a mission against a large arms cache in Paktia province controlled by local Taliban commander Mullah Jalani, U.S. military spokesman Col. Bryan Hilferty told reporters Wednesday.

It was the second time in as many days that children were reported killed in U.S. assaults. Fifteen Afghan children have died, embarrassing interim President Hamid Karzai as he tries to build support on the eve of a crucial meeting to decide the country's new constitution.

In Friday's incident, the wall of a house collapsed when U.S. ground forces and warplanes attacked a compound, crushing six children and two adults, Hilferty said. The bodies were discovered the next day during a search, he added.

"We don't know what caused the wall to collapse because, although we fired on the compound, there were secondary and tertiary explosions," Hilferty said.

Afghan officials said U.S. troops were blameless.

"I think this incident happened because of the explosives that were kept in that house and I think there were many other weapons in that house," Faiz Mohammed Zalan, foreign affairs spokesman for Paktia's governor, said in an interview.

Zalan said U.S. warplanes attacked the compound in the village of Kosween, in Paktia's Sayed Karam district northwest of Gardez, but not the house where the children died.

"This house was not bombed by U.S. planes because the U.S. planes targeted another house where the Taliban were supposed to be. But they had already left that house," Zalan said by satellite phone from Gardez, the provincial capital.

Three boys and three girls died in the incident, which occurred during a raid that began about 2 a.m., Zalan said.

"On Saturday, the governor and the Americans are going to see the area and apologize for what has happened there," Zalan said. "They said that they might even pay money to the family of those who died.

"There were five people arrested during the whole operation, but they were innocent, so they were released the next day," he said. Among the arms discovered in the compound were rockets, artillery and land mines, Hilferty said.

"We try very hard not to kill anyone. We would prefer to capture the terrorists rather than kill them," the U.S. military spokesman said. "But in this incident, if noncombatants surround themselves with thousands of weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammunition and howitzers and mortars in a compound known to be used by a terrorist, we are not completely responsible for the consequences."

About 2,000 U.S. and Afghan troops launched Operation Avalanche on Dec. 2 to root out Taliban guerrillas and their allies from the Al Qaeda terrorist network and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami, or Islamic Party faction, before winter.

The U.S. military called it the largest operation since the U.S.-led war against the Taliban regime two years ago.

On Saturday, an A-10 antitank jet killed nine Afghan children in the village of Hutala, in Ghazni province south of Kabul, in what was meant to be an attack on Taliban militant Mullah Wazir. U.S. officials had said the attack also killed Wazir, but have backed away from that claim.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said Tuesday that it was unclear whether a man killed in the Hutala assault was Wazir. Villagers and local Afghan officials say Wazir escaped.

In interviews here several weeks ago, senior officials in the interim government said Karzai has been pressing U.S. military commanders for more than a year to modify their tactics to end a string of mistaken attacks on civilians.

Zalan said U.S. forces in his region did the right thing after a mistaken bombing killed civilians last year in Zormat, southeast of Gardez. U.S. commanders set up an Afghan National Army camp in the area to improve coordination with local officials, said Zalan, who could not recall the death toll from the earlier incident.

"To prevent such mistakes, the Americans should always speak with government officials, like the governor and others," Zalan added.

"And they also should speak with local security guys. Wherever the Americans are getting their [intelligence] reports, they should be very careful. And the guys they are contacting must not very honest and reliable."

In a report released Monday, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Anan warned that runaway crime, factional fighting and a huge opium trade are seriously threatening the progress Afghanistan has made since the Taliban was ousted two years ago.

International support must be "significantly increased and sustained" if Afghanistan is to get the peace and stability it needs to make the transition to democracy, the report to the General Assembly said.

"Security is needed not only to create the environment for political activities, but for reconstruction as well," the report said. "The restriction of development activities in the most unstable parts of the country has not been without consequence.

"The denial of both security and basic social services to populations in these areas serves to further undermine public confidence in the peace process."

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