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Afghan Civilians Killed During Possible Mistaken Fire

Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah told reporters, ”Strong measures have to be taken to avoid such further incidents.”

“This situation has to come to an end. Mistakes can take place, human errors are possible, but our people should be assured that every measure was taken to avoid such incidents.”

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the deaths a tragedy, but said it may take days to learn the details of the incident.

“I just don’t know the facts,” Rumsfeld told a news conference. “It’s really a mistake for us to make judgements about what took place when we know we don’t know.”

Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters two U.S. military aircraft were operating at the time of the accident — a bombing run by a B-52 aircraft and an AC-130 gunship’s response to alleged anti-aircraft fire.

Pace said the AC-130 attacked six locations believed to be the sources of anti-aircraft fire directed against them — a move he said would be consistent with U.S. military procedures.

“If a U.S. military unit is taking fire, they have the absolute right of inherent self-defense to return fire,” Pace said.

Officials had originally suspected an errant bomb from the B-52 — one of seven guided bombs dropped into nearby caves where Taliban militants are believed to be hiding — was the source of the destruction. Pace told reporters Tuesday one of the bombs did not hit its target, but said a U.S. soldier saw it fall onto an unpopulated hillside.

Asked whether U.S. soldiers might have misinterpreted traditional celebratory gunshots from a nearby wedding as anti-aircraft fire, Rumsfeld said he would wait for more information before commenting.

“I know that I’ve read in the paper that somebody said there was a wedding, and that there was celebratory firing into the air,” the secretary told reporters. “All I know, or all Pete knows, is what we have heard from the other side, that is to say the U.S. forces. And my instinct is to let a day or two go by while the facts are being gathered.”

U.S. and Afghan officials traveled to the site today in the central province of Uruzgan to begin investigating the incident.

“The number is some 40 people killed, all civilians, and some 100 people wounded,” Abdullah told a news conference. “In one village, there was a wedding party… a whole family of 25 people. No single person was left alive. This is the extent of the damage.”

International aid agencies are traveling to the area with supplies to treat the wounded.

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