A tale of tribal treachery, Arab mercenaries and how the Americans may have been used to settle an Afghan blood feud emerged yesterday behind the bombing of a convoy that left up to 60 people dead and 40 injured.
The killings threatened to cast a shadow over the new interim government of Hamid Karzai, who took office on Saturday. The casualties were said to be on their way to Kabul from the eastern province of Paktia for the inauguration when they were attacked by US Air Force AC-130 gunships and Navy jets.
The news of the strikes had a major impact on delegates gathered in the capital. The Pentagon, however, insisted that the vehicles the warplanes had raided were al-Qa'ida ones. The commander of the Afghan War, General Tommy Franks, said that his forces were acting on intelligence and had retaliated after coming under fire from two surface-to-air missiles.
But it has now been claimed that "intelligence" had been supplied to the Americans by a Paktia warlord, Pacha Khan, who had a score to settle with members of the nomadic Kochi clan – who have a reputation for lawlessness – travelling in the convoy. Local villagers said he had deliberately misinformed the Americans that the vehicles contained al-Qa'ida fighters and engineered the air attack.
Mr Khan is a powerful man whose brother is a minister in Mr Karzai's new cabinet. He is also said to be close to the American commanders.
According to the locals, his men blocked the convoy from the main road between the towns of Khost and Gardez, forcing it to get on to a remote mountain pass, thus making it appear it was attempting to avoid detection.
All 24 vehicles were hit and most of them destroyed as the warplanes struck just after 6pm on Thursday and carried out repeated sorties. Among the killed and injured, it was reported, were two mujahedin commanders, Mohammed Ibrahim, whose brother Jalaluddin Haqqani was a minister in the Taliban government, and Haji Nayim Kochi, a clan elder.
The twisted and burnt wreckage of the cars and buses lay mangled near the town of Soto Kondou, 50 miles east of Khost, yesterday. The villagers of Asmani Kilai, where most of the people in the convoy came from, spoke of how Pacha Khan had allegedly got the Americans to do their dirty work, naming him as the malicious informer.
One villager, Agha Mohammed, said: "There were no terrorists here. They have destroyed an entire village, we have nothing left.''
Another, Khodai Noor, said: "The people who got hit were going to congratulate Karzai on the transfer of power. There are no members of al-Qa'ida or supporters of Osama bin Laden here."
One of those hit was Haji Yaqub Khan Tanaiwal, 65, who suffered multiple fractures to his right leg and injuries to his arms. Speaking at a hospital near Peshawar, across the Pakistani border, he said: "Those who reported on the convoy must have a grudge against some people in it. The Americans know who gave them the report. They should not rely on people like that.
"We were first told that the road was closed and then armed men made us get off the road. There was not a single shot fired from the convoys. But the planes attacked. There were about six people in each car, and every car was hit. Those who survived the first attack ran for cover, under trees. Others were trapped inside their cars. There were no Talibans in the convoy. We all support the new government and the US because they supported us in the jihad against the Russians. I fought in that war.''
General Shahnawaz Tanai, from the same area, fought against Mr Tanaiwal in that war. The general, who was chief-of-staff to President Najibullah, who was later murdered by the Taliban, said: "I know Haji Yaqub. He is no Taliban."
But Pacha Khan's brother denied that anyone from his family had informed on the convoy and said the dead were all Osama bin Laden's Arab fighters, who had set up base in Paktia and the provinces of Paktia, Helmand and Khost.
Amanullah Zadran, the new minister for borders, who had just attended his first cabinet meeting, said in Kabul: "We do have contacts with Americans and we have told them about al-Qa'ida. I do know the Americans have a photo of a Stinger missile being fired at them. There are around 350 Arabs who are in this area: they are mercenaries who are paid by the UAE [United Arab Emirates]. They were trying to escape to Pakistan when they were attacked. I have seen pictures of four of the dead, they are Arabs.
"We did not tell the Americans about the convoy. Their planes found it," he said.
* The former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, who became one of the best-known faces of the war in Afghanistan, said yesterday he had applied for political asylum in Pakistan.Reuse content