Forward Operating Base Thunder, Afghanistan The story of a 6-year-old Afghan boy who says he thwarted an effort by Taliban militants to trick him into being a suicide bomber provoked tears and anger at a meeting of tribal leaders.
The account from Juma Gul, a dirt-caked child who collects scrap metal for money, left American soldiers dumbfounded that a youngster could be sent on such a mission. Afghan troops crowded around the boy to call him a hero.
Though the Taliban dismissed the story as propaganda, at a time when U.S. and NATO forces are under increasing criticism over civilian casualties, both Afghan tribal elders and U.S. military officers said they were convinced by his dramatic account.
Juma said that sometime last month Taliban fighters forced him to wear a vest they said would spray out flowers when he touched a button. He said they told him that when he saw American soldiers, "throw your body at them."
The militants cornered Juma in a Taliban-controlled district in southern Afghanistan's Ghazni province. The boy proved too street-smart for their plan.
"When they first put the vest on my body I didn't know what to think, but then I felt the bomb," Juma told The Associated Press as he ate lamb and rice after being introduced to the elders at this joint U.S.-Afghan base in Ghazni. "After I figured out it was a bomb, I went to the Afghan soldiers for help."
While Juma's story could not be independently verified, local government leaders backed his account and the U.S. and NATO military missions said they believed his story.
Abdul Rahim Deciwal, the chief administrator for Juma's village of Athul, brought the boy and an older brother, Dad Gul, to a weekend meeting between Afghan elders and U.S. Army Col. Martin P. Schweitzer.
Schweitzer called the Taliban's attempt "a cowardly act."
As Deciwal told Juma's story, 20 Afghan elders repeatedly clicked their tongues in sadness and disapproval. When the boy and his brother were brought in, several of the turban-wearing men welled up, wiping their eyes with handkerchiefs.
"If anybody has a heart, then how can you control yourself (before) these kids?" Deciwal said in broken English.
Wallets quickly opened, and the boys were handed $60 in American and Afghan currency - a good chunk of money in a country where teachers and police earn $70 a month.
"I think the boy is intelligent," Deciwal said. "When he comes from the enemy he found a checkpoint of the ANA (Afghan National Army), and he asked the ANA: 'Hey, can you help me? Somebody gave me this jacket and I don't know what's inside but maybe something bad.'"
A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, denied the militant group uses child fighters, saying it has hundreds of adults ready for suicide missions.
"We don't need to use a child," Ahmadi told the AP by satellite phone. "It's against Islamic law, it's against humanitarian law. This is just propaganda against the Taliban."
However, a gory Taliban video that surfaced in April showed militants instructing a boy of about 12 as he beheaded an alleged traitor with a large knife. U.N. officials condemned the act as a war crime.