US admits lethal blunders
Village is wiped out as 2,000lb of Allied explosives miss Taliban target
Jason Burke in Peshawar
Serious blunders by American warplanes may have killed at least 100 civilians in Afghanistan, according to eye-witness accounts obtained by The Observer .
Two US jets, they said, had bombed a village in eastern Afghanistan, killing more than 100 people. And the Pentagon yesterday admitted that a 2,000lb bomb missed its Taliban military target at Kabul airport on Friday night, and apparently struck a residential area.
The Taliban claim US and British military strikes have killed 300 or more civilians, including four workers who died earlier last week when an errant cruise missile was believed to have hit a building used by the United Nations for mine-clearing operations.
Until now Western politicians have been quick to dismiss the claims as propaganda. Britain's International Development Secretary, Clare Short, said 'there had not been so many civilian casualties'. Now apparent confirmation of serious casualties among non-combatants is beginning to emerge.
If the evidence is accurate, an attack on Karam village, 18 miles west of Jalalabad, last Thursday was the most lethal blunder yet by the Allied forces, and will seriously shake the increasingly fragile coalition built by President Bush and Tony Blair.
Reports of between 50 and 150 deaths there provoked rage and grief throughout Afghanistan and throughout the Muslim world.
Yesterday - as air strikes continued after a pause for Friday, the Muslim holy day - the Taliban rejected Bush's offer of a 'second chance' to hand over Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect for the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington.
The supreme leader of Afghanistan's Taliban militia ruled out handing over Bin Laden and appealed again to Muslims everywhere to help defend his country, the Afghan Islamic Press reported Saturday. 'We have not agreed with America to hand over anyone,' Mullah Mohamed Omar said in a statement issued in Kandahar. 'The only sin we have committed is we have enforced Islamic laws in our country and we have provided peace to the oppressed. But ordinary Muslims are being targeted.'
If confirmed, the destruction of Karam will harden support in Afghanistan behind the Taliban. Previously it was hoped that moderates within the movement, or wavering individual commanders, could be split off from hardliners and persuaded to defect.
'Any civilian casualties make the Afghan people, and therefore the Taliban, look like victims,' said one Peshawar-based Afghan military commander.
There were no reports yesterday of armed demonstrations against Americans in Jalalabad, previously a city where support for the Taliban was thin.
Aiman Malai, a shopkeeper in the eastern Afghan village of Milka Khel, told The Observer that he was finishing his morning prayers at 3.45am on Thursday when he saw two jets approaching Karam from the north 'like two black darts shooting through the air'.
From his hilltop village, Malai watched the two jets swoop low over Karam, three miles away across a valley.
'They came low over it and then there was a huge explosion and flames reaching high into the air. There was more explosive in these bombs than the ones the Russians used.'
Lal Jand, 30, a farmer who was in Karam, said the planes circled for two more attacks on the village. Jand, whose hand was wounded, telephoned his uncle, Haji Awal Khan Nasr, later after going to hospital for treatment. His wife and two of his sons had been killed.
'My nephew told me the planes came in the first time and only a few people were injured. Many of the men outside were able to run away, but the planes came back two more times. All the women and children were still in the houses. They had no chance. I believe maybe more than 100 have died,' Nasr said yesterday.
Nasr listed the men he knew had died. The oldest man in the village, 60-year-old Haji Ghami, perished along with all but his youngest son, Surgul, who was away, Nasr said.
'The Americans are educated people. They can see that these are not terrorists.Why do they target them?'
On Friday, villagers 'were still digging bodies out of the rubble', said Zadra Azam, the region's deputy governor. The village, its population swollen by refugees, had been thought safe by many local people.