Ten Afghans killed in helicopter strike against 'Taliban chiefs'

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Haji Lawang, a Nomadic tribesman, saw the outline of the helicopter in the night sky and heard its roar as it flew low over his three tents. A moment later, an explosion shook the ground and fire flew up from the desert about a mile away.

Mr Lawang, 50, huddled with his two wives, four children, goats and camels and prayed his family would not be attacked. At dawn, he went out to investigate and found his neighbours' camp in ruins. Five women and four children were dead, he said. Five men and a woman lay wounded.

He ran to the nearby village of Roghani and borrowed a truck. He drove the wounded 120 miles to a hospital in the southern city of Kandahar. Senior Afghan officials there blamed American forces for the attack and said that up to 10 nomads had been killed.

US forces in Afghanistan said one of its helicopters attacked a tent last Thursday night in Naubahar district and killed two Taliban militants, including a commander who had been leading attacks against US-led forces for the past year.

The military initially said it was "highly confident" that only enemy fighters had been killed. It said later that it was investigating reports of "noncombatant casualties".

The account of the bombing by apparent witnesses highlights the plight of civilians killed or wounded in the US-led war on terrorism. Claims of civilian deaths are common in the battle against Taliban and al-Qa'ida militants, who have been launching increasingly bold attacks in recent months, raiding police stations, killing aid workers and confronting American troops.

But most of the reports are nearly impossible to verify. The dead are often villagers in remote mountains or deserts. The US military, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International all said that they did not compile civilian death tolls in Afghanistan.

"Civilian deaths are happening all the time in very remote places in the country and there are no eyes or ears to report on them," said Brad Adams, the Asian director for Human Rights Watch. "Nobody has looked at the whole picture of these casualties. We remain convinced that military operations end up causing great numbers of civilian casualties."

The US military said in a statement from Bagram air base that it had attacked the tent after it traced a satellite telephone belonging to the Taliban commander Mullah Mohammed Gul Niazi.

The military did not respond to questions sent by e-mail yesterday about the investigation into the bombing. A US military spokesman said: "As always, we do everything possible to avoid harming non-combatants."

Mr Lawang said he did not know if Taliban militants were in the tents at the time of the bombing, although he said he did not see their bodies in the morning. He said the people living in the tents were impoverished desert nomads like him who wander the mostly barren countryside looking for pasture for their sheep and camels.

"They were not Taliban. They had nothing to do with politics. This is a disaster. People said the Americans came here to help us build our country, but they are not. They are killing our people." He said no US or Afghan official had been to the site of the bombing.

Mr Lawang said other nomads at the bombed camp fled into nearby mountains shortly after the attack.