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Bungled attack could alienate Afghans: US

Bagram, Dec. 8 (Reuters): The US military said today it had launched its biggest ever ground operation against Islamic militants in Afghanistan but worried a bungled attack that killed nine children could alienate Afghans.

The military said it launched “Operation Avalanche” at the weekend across eastern and southern Afghanistan, where Taliban and allied Islamic militants have regained strength and carried out a series of attacks on foreign troops and aid workers.

About 2,000 of the 11,500 US-led troops in the country are taking part in a mission designed to kill or capture militants and make the area safe for aid and reconstruction work, US spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Bryan Hilferty said.

“This one is the largest we have ever designed,” he said at the US headquarters at Bagram north of Kabul. Hilferty said the operation involved four infantry battalions as well as soldiers from the Afghan National Army and militia.

But overshadowing the offensive is the deaths of nine children killed by a US air strike on the village of Petaw in the southern province of Ghazni on Saturday. They are the latest civilians killed accidentally by US-led forces pursuing remnants of the Taliban regime overthrown in late 2001 and members of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida network.

Hilferty said the strike by A-10 “tankbuster” aircraft firing 30mm high-explosive and incendiary rounds had been carefully planned to kill a “known terrorist”. “Unfortunately, when we got there, we found the bodies of nine children and one adult man.”

Afghan officials said the intended target, Mullah Wazir, was not at home at the time. Hilferty conceded that villagers had said the man killed was someone else.

Asked if such mistakes could boost support for militants, he replied: “I think it is possible such mistakes could make Afghans think ill of the coalition.” The UN said yesterday it was “profoundly distressed” by news of the children’s deaths and called for a swift investigation and for it to be made public. It said the incident could have a negative impact in the troubled south.

Hilferty said US law did not allow payment of compensation to victims’ families, but American forces aimed to help the village with reconstruction assistance. “We do make mistakes. War is an inexact art, there is a fog and a friction in war, but we will continue to do the best we can to help them,” he said.

A statement from President Hamid Karzai said he had asked the US-led force for an explanation and sent his own investigation team.

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