Greatest danger to troops comes from own forces

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The deaths of three US special forces operatives and five anti-Taliban Afghans in an American bomb attack were by far the most serious "friendly fire" incident of the eight-week campaign. They renewed concern about the reliability of "smart", or precision-guided, bombs.

It was, moreover, a military tragedy that could have had devastating political consequences had the "light" injuries suffered by Hamid Karzai, the Pashtun tribal leader named yesterday to head the interim government in Kabul, been more serious.

Military officials said the men were killed by a bomb dropped by a B-52 called in to assist attacks to the north of the remaining Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. The intended target was Taliban troops firing mortars at opposition Afghan soldiers, aided by US special forces.

The satellite-guided weapon went astray, wreaking destruction on the units which had called for help. In addition to the three US soldiers killed, 19 were wounded, some critically. The wounded were ferried by helicopter to the Marines airstrip near Kandahar and, if their conditions permitted, from there to military hospitals either in the region or Germany.

President George Bush expressed his condolences, and a Pentagon spokeswoman said the incident "underlined what we don't say often enough round here, that every single day men and women put themselves in grave danger in Afghanistan". Indeed, hundreds of US special forces are in Afghanistan, while 1,000 Marines are fanning out from their forward encampment outside Kandahar. But the US military has been deeply shaken by the fact that, yet again, some of the deadliest danger stems from its own side.

Exactly what happened will only emerge from the investigations under way at the Pentagon and US Central Command, which is responsible for the Afghan campaign. But there are three main possibilities: the wrong co-ordinates were signalled from the ground; the pilot punched incorrect data into the computer; or the bomb, a 2,000lb satellite-guided GPU-31 JDAM, malfunctioned.

"Calling up close close air support can be a very hazardous occupation," Admiral John Stufflebeem, the Pentagon spokesman, said yesterday. He said the B-52, considered a long-range strategic aircraft, had been upgraded to give it precision capacity. "Maybe they called in support and the B-52 was the only aircraft on station." A 2,000lb bomb could not be safely dropped from fewer than 4,000 feet, he said.

But however tragic, the incident fits a pattern of recent wars in which the US has ben involved. In the Gulf in 1991, of the 148 US soldiers killed in action, up to a quarter died as a result of friendly fire. In that campaign, nine British soldiers were killed in a single incident when they were attacked in the desert by US forces.

During the 78-day campaign in Kosovo in 1999, not a single allied life was lost in combat. Only two US servicemen were killed – during an Apache helicopter training exercise in neighbouring Albania.

Only seven US personnel have been killed during Operation Enduring Freedom and only one of them – the CIA operative Mike Spann who died during the Taliban prison uprising at Mazar-i-Sharif 10 days ago – was killed at the hands of the enemy. Three died in friendly fire yesterday, while two servicemen were killed in a helicopter crash in Pakistan on 19 October. Before that a serviceman died in a forklift truck accident at a base on the Arabian peninsula.

Five special forces soldiers were wounded by friendly fire in the chaotic fighting inside the fortress at Mazar-i-Sharif, but none critically.