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U.S. says airstrike killed five militants in Afghanistan
( 2004-01-21 09:55) (Agencies)

The U.S. military insisted Tuesday it had killed five armed militants in a weekend airstrike in southern Afghanistan, countering claims by government officials that the strike hit 11 civilians, including women and children.

An AC-130 gunship killed five men leaving a compound where Taliban leaders gathered Saturday in the Char Chino Valley, said Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, a U.S. military spokesman. He said U.S. special forces had surrounded the compound to arrest suspected Taliban when the strike was called in.

"Our aircraft did not engage noncombatants," Hilferty said. "We clearly identified and engaged five armed adult males in the open."

But Afghan officials assert the airstrike killed four men, four children and three women in the village of Saghatho.

"I think they (the Americans) made a mistake," local official Abdul Rahman told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "We buried all these civilians. They were not Taliban. They were simple villagers."

Some 200 people from the Char Chino district, about 250 miles southwest of the capital, met with the governor of Uruzgan province to protest the deaths, said Rahman, the district's government chief. He added that residents were in mourning and had stopped playing music at the local bazaar.

Afghans warm themselves at a tea samovar in the early winter morning in Kabul, Afghanistan Monday, Jan. 19, 2004. Poor Afghans frequent the cheap roadside tea houses for warmth. [AP]
Violence continued in the area Tuesday morning with the death of two Afghan soldiers and three civilians in a mine blast. The area is considered a hotbed of Taliban activity.

Hilferty said U.S. forces called in the airstrike Saturday when armed men moved toward special forces troops surrounding the compound to arrest suspected members of the hardline Taliban movement that ruled Afghanistan until being ousted by a U.S.-led coalition in 2001.

Crowds of armed men emerged from nearby compounds after the airstrike and the American forces, accompanied by Afghan troops, withdrew to avoid a major battle.

U.S. officials vowed to review the procedures for airstrikes after killing 15 Afghan children in two raids last month, drawing strong protests from Afghan officials and the United Nations.

But Afghan officials continued to insist that the latest raid had killed civilians.

The provincial governor, Jan Mohammed Khan, confirmed Rahman's account Monday.

American commanders and Afghan officials are desperately trying to improve security in the lawless south and east ahead of summer elections, a key step in the two-year drive to stabilize the country.

About 60 people have been killed in violence since the ratification of a new constitution Jan. 4.

Rahman said Tuesday's mine explosion occurred about 6 a.m. in Char Chino, hitting a government car traveling toward Deh Rawood, where the U.S. military maintains a base. The three civilian fatalities were relatives of the Afghan soldiers in the vehicle.

Taliban militants had probably recently laid the mine to target American forces, Rahman said. Insurgents attacked the Deh Rawood base Sunday, injuring three U.S. soldiers. One attacker also was killed.

Farther east, about 40 suspected Taliban attacked a government compound Sunday in Khost province, close to the Pakistani border, wounding two Afghan soldiers, Mohammed Akbar Zadran, the chief of Sabari district, said Tuesday.

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