Officials probe Afghan bombing as anger mounts

BAGRAM/KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, Reuters

As Afghan and U.S. investigators travelled to a remote village in central Afghanistan on Wednesday, survivors leaving the area told of the carnage when American warplanes bombarded a wedding party.

Anger about the incident grew among ordinary Afghans, an act which could complicate the task of the U.S. military as it continues its efforts to track down al-Qaida and Taliban fugitives in the country.

Afghanistan’s government says wedding guests near the village of Deh Rawud were firing into the air — a tradition at Pashtun weddings — when they were mistakenly bombed by U.S. forces.

Locals said they had buried at least 30 people after the attack, but feared many more were still lying under the rubble.

“A piece of iron sliced the woman’s neck in front of me,” said Naseema, a 15-year-old girl, told Reuters in hospital in the city of Kandahar where she had been brought for treatment. “In a split second her head was not on her body.”

“I saw bodies flying like straws,” said Haleema, an old woman. “I had to jump over six bodies to escape.”

“It was like an abattoir,” said another woman who refused to give her name. “There was blood everywhere. There was smoke and dirt all around, and people were running helter skelter. It was a doomsday scene.”

The Afghan government called for more careful targeting by U.S. forces, and closer coordination with local authorities, as anger rose among Afghans.

“The mistakes are too much,” said 18-year-old Fateh Shah in Kabul. “This is not acceptable and has to be stopped, otherwise the feelings of Afghans will be provoked against all foreigners, let alone the Americans.”

Signs also emerged that the incident could complicate the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan by alienating local people.

A three-vehicle convoy of U.S. civil affairs and medical personnel was fired on as it returned from a hospital in the southern city of Kandahar on Tuesday evening, after visiting 19 wounded people brought there after the attack.

Kandahar was the stronghold and spiritual home of the Taliban, while its leader Mullah Mohammad Omar was born near Deh Rawud in Uruzgan province just to the north.

Information has only trickled out slowly from the U.S. military, with partial and initially slightly contradictory accounts emerging from the Pentagon and Bagram air base, the coalition’s staging post for its operations in Afghanistan.

But the U.S. military has not accepted any blame for what appeared to be the worst “friendly fire” incident of its military campaign in Afghanistan and which occurred during a search in the area for fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

At Bagram, Colonel Roger King said a U.S. ground patrol had called in air support after feeling threatened by automatic weapons fire.

The planes, he said, then met sustained and hostile fire from several locations around the village, including anti-aircraft fire, that was not consistent with a wedding party.

“The easiest and best way to avoid civilian casualties is to avoid firing at coalition forces in the proximity of innocent civilians,” King told reporters on Wednesday.

At the Pentagon, Marine Corps General Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said an AC-130 gunship responded to what the crew thought was anti-aircraft fire from the ground. He said the gunship — which rakes targets with 105 mm cannon and machine-guns — had then attacked seven targets.