Thousands of Afghans are abandoning their homes in the east of the country to escape United States air strikes on civilian villages that have killed hundreds of people.
For the fourth consecutive night, American warplanes targeting al-Qa'ida fighters in the White Mountains also bombed nearby villages, killing and injuring unknown numbers and forcing thousands to flee to the regional capital, Jalalabad.
Refugees arriving in the city reported explosions in the hamlets of Nadaf, Zaly Baba, Ghaly Khiel, Musa Khiel and Armat Khiel. All agreed that the villages were emptying as more and more families took to the road with their possessions.
"The bombs fell on Armat Khiel this morning," said Nawab, a farmer aged 35 who had just arrived in Jalalabad in a large green truck carrying 80 members of his community. "It was 500 yards from our village, and all the houses over there were damaged. We don't know how many people were killed, but I saw the bodies of people and animals on the ground. Why do the Americans drop bombs on us when their enemies are the Arabs in the mountains?"
The Pentagon insists that it is only targeting legitimate military targets associated with the al-Qa'ida network and remnants of the Taliban. But in two of the bombed villages, visited yesterday by The Independent, the local people denied that there were any Arabs in the area. There was no sign of any recent military activity, or of the concrete bunkers the Pentagon claimed to have destroyed.
A US military spokesman, Major Brad Lowell, said on Monday that the locations of the villages exactly matched the site of Taliban command and control concrete structures. "We are sure that these are military targets," he said. "They're unlike anything you'd find in an Afghan residential area. If Taliban or al Qa'ida leaders are taking family members of civilians into those areas, they're putting them at risk."
Asked about civilian casualties yesterday, the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said: "It is next to impossible to get accurate information."
For the third time in three days, American aircraft dropped bombs on friendly mujahedin soldiers who are spearheading the ground attack on the al-Qa'ida bases in the White Mountains. According to Hazrat Ali, the security chief of the region, forward positions occupied by his soldiers were bombed yesterday, although none of his men were hurt.
Yesterday and on Monday, the bodies of 15 mujahedin were brought to Jalalabad after a district office and a guest house in which they were staying were destroyed. "We are very worried about why they do this – why they make us the target," Mr Ali said last night.
All day yesterday trucks loaded with beds, tables, chairs, chickens, sacks of food and clothes and scores of people rattled into Jalalabad after a three-hour journey from villages in the foothills of the White Mountains.
"We saw countless bombs falling on the White Mountains, but they also bombed our district," said a farmer named Mir Jan, 28, who left his home in Landi Khiel village with six adult relatives and 11 children. "It was such a big bomb that it broke our windows and even our doors. The fragments of glass came into the house, the house shook, and all my children were yelling for help. We left only because of the bombs."
Interviews with refugees conducted in Jalalabad yesterday support the picture of large-scale depopulation. According to Mr Jan, there were 2,500 people in Landi Khiel before the latest US bombings; no more than 200 remain.
"I don't know the exact number of people in our village, but most of the houses have been abandoned," said a farmer named Sher Nabi, 30, from Zara Kili village. "Sometimes they are occupied by people from other villages which have had worse bombing."
If the same thing has happened throughout the region, then several thousand people must already have left their homes, exchanging the difficult life of a farmer for near destitution in Jalalabad. "I have no money apart from 2000 Afghanis (2 pence) in my pocket," said Mir Jan. "But this is the only hope to save my children."
* Mr Rumsfeld accused foreign al-Qa'ida fighters yesterday of preventing Afghan soldiers from putting down their arms in Kandahar. Civilians were trapped in the city, he said: "They are, in effect, using the civilian population of Kandahar as shields."Reuse content