Up to 60 die as US bombs tribal leaders by mistake War in Afghanistan: Observer special

The Guardian, December 23, 2001
By Paul Harris and Peter Beaumont

Evidence was growing last night that US planes mistakenly bombed a convoy of Afghan tribal leaders travelling to Kabul for the inauguration of the new Afghanistan government, leaving up to 60 dead.

US officials insist the 15 vehicles in the convoy in the eastern province of Paktia contained Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders. But residents in the nearby village of Asmani Kilai said the convoy was made up of local elders and civilians. They said 10 houses and a mosque were destroyed in the seven-hour bombardment.

a woman victim of Taliban and the US strikes

An Afghan man lifts the head of a child who along with 11 other civilians died during US air raids in Kabul on October 28, 2001, witnesses said a man and his seven children were killed when a bomb crashed through their home. (AP photo)
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'The people who got hit were going to congratulate Hamid Karzai [the country's new leader] on the transfer of power,' a villager, Khodai Noor, said in the first account of the bombing.

'There are no members of al-Qaeda or supporters of bin Laden here,' he said, suggesting a local warlord might have misled US forces about the convoy to settle a score. Noor said the convoy had been diverted from its intended route by a hostile local commander, Pacha Khan, who told American forces that the vehicles were carrying al-Qaeda members.

The attack killed up to 60 people. US defence officials say a missile was fired from the convoy at their planes, confirming intelligence reports that the vehicles were carrying enemy forces. 'I will tell you, having been in touch with my headquarters, that at this point we believe it was a good target,' General Tommy Franks said in Kabul.

But villagers said the convoy had set out for the Afghan capital from the town of Khost with tribal elders who were unarmed.

The village, in the Ozi district of Paktia province, sits on barren hills and its houses were reduced to rubble. Six wrecked cars, their bodywork riddled with bullets and shrapnel, stood on the track. Shrapnel and the remains of spent ordnance littered the dirt. Thevillagers said more vehicles had been hit farther along the route in air strikes between 9pm last Thursday and 4am on Friday.

'Why is this tyranny happening to us?' asked Haji Khyal Khan, a villager who said five members of his family had been killed.

Locals picked through the remains of their homes, retrieving what possessions they could, including a tattered carpet.

'There were no terrorists. They destroyed a whole village and we've lost everything,' said another villager, Agha Mohammad.

News of the tragedy is likely to strain relations between the West and the new Afghan government of Karzai, who has said he will investigate the attack on the convoy. That could hurt the hunt for Osama bin Laden since US forces rely on local Afghans for gathering much intelligence.

Franks admitted yesterday that the US no longer knew where bin Laden was, or if the terrorist leader was alive or dead. Pakistan's President, Pervez Musharraf, said bin Laden may have been killed in US bombing of the Tora Bora mountains. He told China's state television:

'There is the great possibility he may have lost his life.'

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