| Afghan troops walk past trucks carrying missiles along a road in Afghanistan’s Panjsher valley on Wednesday. The area’s dominant Jamiat faction began handing over heavy weapons as part of a government disarmament drive. (Reuters)
Kabul, Dec. 10 (Reuters): The US military said today six children and two adults were killed in a US attack in southeastern Afghanistan, the second incident in less than a week in which children have died.
Nine children were killed in a bungled air strike on Saturday that raised fears of a backlash from Afghans.
The bodies of the six children were found after a US air and ground attack last Friday on a compound used by a “terrorist” commander to store arms near Gardez in Paktia province, US military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Bryan Hilferty said.
“After we went in there, we discovered the next day, when we were trying to clear it, the bodies of two adults and six children under a collapsed wall,” he said.
“We don’t know what caused the wall to collapse, because although we fired on the compound, there were secondary and tertiary explosions.”
The news is an embarrassment to the US military, coming days after it said it had killed another nine children in a bungled airstrike in the neighbouring province of Ghazni meant to target another militant.
Hilferty told a news conference Friday’s attack was launched by special forces on a compound used by Mullah Jalani to store hundreds of rockets and mines as well as artillery pieces.
“We were conducting a night assault on the compound,” he said.“We observed a heavy machinegun firing from a compound that we had no indication there were non-combatants in. We fired on the compound from the air and the machinegun stopped.”
Hilferty described Jalani as an “opportunistic terrorist” with ties to guerrillas of the former Taliban regime, al Qaida and renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. He said Jalani was not found, but nine nine suspected militants were detained.
The spokesman said US rules of engagement were stringent, shown by the fact they had not fired on 10 people seen leaving the compound, because they could not be identified as combatants.
On Monday, Hilferty said the military was concerned Saturday’s bungled attack could alienate Afghans in the troubled south, a concern shared by the UN which has already had to curtail aid work in the region because of militant violence.
The UN said it was “profoundly distressed” by the Ghazni incident and called for a swift inquiry with the results made public. In both incidents, the military did not reveal the children’s deaths until it was asked specific questions by journalists.
It has been criticised in the past for failing to reveal civilian deaths promptly, most notably in July last year when a helicopter gunship fired on a wedding party in Uruzgan province.
The Afghan government said 48 people were killed and 117 wounded. The US military eventually said 34 died and 50 were wounded — mostly women and children — but said the aircraft had come under fire.
Last month, six civilians died in an air strike in Paktika province and nearly three weeks before eight family members died in another strike in Nuristan, officials and witnesses said.
Yesterday, the Pentagon defended US military attempts to kill insurgent leaders in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, pressed at a Pentagon briefing on why the military continued to attempt “targeted killings” despite tragic errors, countered that the United States preferred to capture those it was hunting. We would be happy to capture them. We would be happy to have them surrender. And if they don't, we would be happy to kill them. And that's what's going on,” Rumsfeld said.