Archive for Wednesday, December 5, 2001

U.S. troops killed by misdirected airstrike

December 5, 2001


— American bombs accidentally killed three U.S. servicemen and injured 20 others in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday. Anti-Taliban fighters in the mountainous east battled al-Qaida guerrillas, capturing territory below a suspected cave hide-out of Osama bin Laden.

The friendly fire incident happened when a B-52 seeking to target enemy Taliban forces missed and dropped its ordnance too close to opposition forces and their American advisers north of Kandahar, the last stronghold of the Taliban, U.S. officials said.

Five Afghan fighters were also killed and at least 20 wounded, officials said. The American and Afghan wounded were rushed away by Super Stallion helicopters escorted by helicopter gunships, said Cpt. David Romley, public affairs officer at a Marine base in the deserts outside Kandahar.

In Germany, Afghan factions trying to put decades of war behind them named respected Pashtun tribal leader Hamid Karzai to head a 30-member Cabinet that will take power on Dec. 22 as an interim post-Taliban government.

As the announcement was made, Karzai was reported to be with his fighters who are part of the push to oust the Taliban from Kandahar.

To the north, high-flying B-52s pounded a vast cave complex in the rugged White mountains near the city of Jalalabad. Reporters at front line positions watched anti-Taliban tanks fire repeated volleys at the caves of Tora Bora, named after this village at the base of the mountain in eastern Afghanistan.

One tribal commander, Alim Shah, said his Afghan fighters were pursuing a mainly Arab al-Qaida force that was retreating with mortars, rocket launchers and assault rifles to positions above the caves.

"We are trying our best to capture them alive. They are surrounded by us, but they are not surrendering," Shah said.

Shah said his fighters were meeting heavy resistance. Escape routes to Pakistan to the east have been snowed in, he added, and the Taliban and al-Qaida defenders had nowhere else to go.

Moreover, there was no sign of bin Laden, who is accused of masterminding the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Some of the Americans injured by the friendly fire outside Kandahar were taken to Base Rhino, a forward operating base of some 1,000 U.S. Marines southwest of the city. The base's public affairs officer, Capt. Stewart Upton, said that the Americans were sent on to other facilities from the base, while other American injured went directly.

Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said one of the three Americans killed died from his injuries while on route to a hospital.

About 20 wounded Afghan troops, some with serious injuries from the errant missile strike, were treated at the base then transferred elsewhere, he said.

Romley said pilots and crews from the base were "in very short order" able to get the injured forces "return them and begin treatment and triage."

The deaths bring to three the number of Americans killed inside Afghanistan in the two-month war. CIA paramilitary Johnny "Mike" Spann was killed Nov. 25 in a prisoner uprising while questioning forces captured in the fighting. Five U.S. soldiers were wounded in that same uprising when a U.S. bomb went astray.

At a Pentagon news conference, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would not say whether American ground troops would themselves search for al-Qaida and bin Laden. But he said they "have been actively encouraging Afghan elements to seek out and find the al-Qaida and Taliban leadership."

Muslim activists in Egypt said the wife and three daughters of Osama bin Laden's top strategist, Ayman al-Zawahri, were killed by U.S. bombing in or around Kandahr along with some relatives of other Arabs in al-Qaida.

U.S. officials believe al-Zawahri escaped, although unconfirmed reports claimed he had been wounded.

Al-Zawahri, an Egyptian physician who founded the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, is widely considered the No. 2 man in bin Laden's network.

In the south, Pashtun tribesmen Wednesday pushed toward Kandahar, the Taliban's last major stronghold.

However, some pulled back from the city's airport after fierce resistance to allow U.S. jets to bomb Taliban and al-Qaida defenders there.

Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar has ordered his forces to fight to the death and has rejected repeated demands to surrender.

Rumsfeld accused Taliban leaders of "in effect using the civilian population of Kandahar as shields." He predicted the city would soon fall without the help of the Marines at Camp Rhino.

Meanwhile, French troops were expected to arrive in Tajikistan on Wednesday, a day after the Central Asian nation on Afghanistan's northern border agreed to allow use of one of its airbases for operations in Afghanistan.

The French Foreign Ministry said the 60 French troops would pass through Tajikistan on route to the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif, where they were to help rebuild an airport for humanitarian aid deliveries.

The Tajik president said Tuesday that U.S. and French combat aircraft would be allowed to use Tajikistan's Kulyab airbase, about 30 miles north of the Afghan border.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Associated Press correspondents Kathy Gannon in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Christopher Torchia in Quetta, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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