US bombing raid kills 40 villagers, claim tribal chiefs

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United States warplanes killed at least 40 people and injured 60 others in bombings carried out on villages in eastern Afghanistan, tribal sources claimed last night.

The reports of the attacks in Paktika come just a week after 20 people died and 40 were wounded in the neighbouring province of Paktia when US jets bombed a convoy.

Many of those killed in the latest raid were said to be asleep when US planes allegedly destroyed up to 25 houses. Among them was the home of Mauvi Taha, a Taliban member according to officials of the Waziristan Tribal Agency.

Villagers at Naka, where a number of people died, denied that Taliban and al-Qa'ida members were hiding in the area. They said some of the dead were unrecognisable due to burns. One villager said: "Neither Osama bin Laden or any other foreigners are in our village. We support the new government in Kabul."

The first reports of the attack came from the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) which is known to have contacts among the Taliban. It was not clear exactly when the bombing happened but the Pentagon yesterday said it had not carried out any attacks on Wednesday.

The reports will cause further disquiet over the continued bombardment by US planes in the east of the country.

The Pentagon claimed that the Paktia convoy attacked last week contained Arab al-Qa'ida fighters, and US planes had come under fire from ground-to-air missiles. A Pentagon spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke, said yesterday: "All of our information said it was a military target and our information still supports that."

But local people insisted the victims were civilians on their way to the inauguration of the new interim administration of Hamid Karzai in Kabul.

Mr Karzai is under increasing pressure about the deaths. Tribal elders claimed yesterday that Mr Karzai has promised to ask the US to stop air raids on Paktika and Paktia.

However, the interim Afghan leader and his ministers have been reluctant to publicly criticise the Americans, without whose military might they would not be sitting in Kabul.

In addition, many Tajik members of the new government believe Paktia and Paktika have become refuges for remnants of the Taliban and al-Qa'ida, and that former Taliban warlords in the area who profess support for Mr Karzai remain defiant at heart.